Is Abetz right about the same-sex marriage plebiscite?

Senator Eric Abetz’s statement to the Guardian last week that he would not consider the results of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage binding – that is, he might vote against a same-sex marriage bill even if a majority of the population had voted for it – is revealing.

Yes, it has an obvious political explanation. There’s been a lot of “clever” politicking over same-sex marriage. The plebiscite was an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass – an expensive delaying tactic. Nominally conservative politicians have even called for pointless constitutional change to hold back a policy that has a clear majority of support.

But Abetz’s statement is more interesting in that it exposes deep confusion, uncertainty and ambiguity about the relationship between politicians and voters. Aren’t politicians supposed to be our representatives? And if so, what does that mean?

Abetz made two arguments. First, he reserved judgment as to whether the plebiscite would be a fair reflection of the public’s views. If he felt it was stacked against traditional marriage (say, through an unbalanced distribution of funding) he would not consider it binding.

But Abetz also left it open to reject the plebiscite’s results regardless. As he said: “People elect us so that we exercise our own best judgments on all the issues that come before us.” Politicians must “take into account the views of the electorate, the views of the nation and their own personal views.”

But why should the “personal views” of politicians have any weight in political decision making? What is so special about political consciences?

I can think of few professions that I would trust less to follow their consciences than politics – surely the only industry where megalomania, narcissism and confrontation is not just tolerated but is actually a positive. And the idea that political consciences need to be protected is precious beyond belief, given that the practice of politics involves trading off personal beliefs for electoral gain.

There are workarounds to Abetz’s objections. The enabling legislation for the plebiscite could be written so that same-sex marriage is legal automatically after a positive popular vote. Concerns about unfair funding balance should be resolved by not funding any side at all.

But the real question raised by both the plebiscite (which suggests same-sex marriage is too important to be resolved by Parliament) and Abetz’s insistence on a conscience vote (which suggests same-sex marriage is too important to force parliamentarians to go against their beliefs) is why we elect politicians in the first place.

Are they there to represent the views of the voters in Parliament – effectively employees whose job is to do the bidding of their electorate as faithfully as is practicable? Or are they there as sort of an elected aristocracy – placed into power as a popular endorsement of their inner selves?

It is in the interests of the political class to believe the latter, with all the quasi-mystical implications about power and political authority it brings. The most famous expression of this worldview was offered by thegreat conservative Edmund Burke in a speech immediately after he was elected for the first time as the member for Bristol in 1774. Burke argued he was first and foremost a member of parliament with a responsibility to deliberate on behalf of the whole nation, and was not there to reflect “local purposes” or “local prejudices”.

The speech to the electors of Bristol is one of the basic texts of Western democratic politics. But rarely are the views of the electors of Bristol reported. Burke was not a popular local member. When the next election came around – six years later – he had so clearly dissatisfied Bristol voters that he deliberately ran dead, ultimately coming fifth in a ballot of five candidates. Burke did not represent the electors of Bristol again.

The voters seem to have believed Burke had been elected to represent them, and had no hesitation dumping the great conservative thinker when they learned he did not share that view.

In this light, the decision to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage rather than a parliamentary vote was a rather devastating indictment of the Australian political class. First it suggests that our so-called representatives are unable to adequately represent our views – whether those views be for or against marriage reform. Second, for those who hold to a more Burkean vision of democracy, it makes politicians look less like confident, deliberative aristocrats and more like cowards, unable to come to decisions on policy questions they find uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. If the goal of democratic choice is to discern what most people want, then direct democracy is much more effective than delegated representation. But then we should be subjecting more government policy to a plebiscite. Things like tax increases, spending programs, military engagements, regulatory interventions, law and order schemes – they could all go to a popular vote.

I know, I know. This is fantasy stuff. Imagine the political class admitting it was not competent to rule on the big issues.