OPINION: Should pollies or voters decide on gay marriage?
PAGE MP Kevin Hogan says the question of Federal support for same-sex marriages should be decided by popular vote through a plebiscite rather than by a politicians' conscience vote in Canberra.
While I'm not necessarily opposed to this, it does raise some interesting questions about plebiscites and conscience votes more broadly.
READ THE STORY: Hogan backs gay marriage, but prefers plebiscite
Plebiscites are an often talked about but little-used tool of democracy in Australia. In fact, only three national plebiscites have been held since Federation, two were close to a century ago, both on the issues of conscription in the first World War, and one in 1977 that changed our national anthem to Advance Australia Fair.
Conscience votes are far more common, if still relatively infrequent. A research paper on Parliament House website tracking conscience votes from the Menzies to the Howard governments suggests MPs in the House of Reps face a conscience vote, on average, every couple of years.
During the Howard era, those votes covered euthenasia, stem cell research, human cloning (twice), and the availability of the so-called abortion pill, RU486.
Each issue was powerfully emotive in the public consciousness at the time, hence the conscience vote.
If you accept same sex marriage is an issue that should be decided through a plebiscite rather than by politicians in Parliament, then by extension the questions put to conscience votes during the Howard era might also have been better decided through plebiscites.
Personally, I'm for it. Anything that directly involves the people in directing government can only result in a more robust and dynamic democracy.