Image for Afghanistan and the duty of our representatives

In an earlier article I called for more responsibility to be given to our representatives in Parliament to decide the merits of the arguments for and against our continuing involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

The fundamental issue of whether we can still justify exposing our troops, other combatants and an ever increasing number of innocent civilians to death and suffering is clearly as much a moral issue as it is an issue involving our national interests.

Normally you would think such an issue, involving the killing of other human beings, would call for a “conscience” vote. This was the case for debates in the past on the death penalty, abortion and stem-cell research. It will also be the case for the debate on euthanasia.

However, neither major party has permitted a “conscience” vote for the debate on the war, or indeed any vote at all, even though it involves matters of life and death affecting thousands of people who will have no say in the matter. There are probably two reasons for this. The first has to do with preserving the Executive’s exclusive power to decide issues relating to war. The second has to do with the threat such a vote might pose to party unity.

Because this Realpolitik is so firmly entrenched, and the pressure to follow the party line so extreme, it becomes even more important to consider the responsibility of our elected representatives to challenge the status quo when such grave moral issues arise. This requires an examination of the particular nature of the duties they have towards the people who elected them.

There are two competing views. The popular view states that members should act in accordance with the wishes of their electorate. According to this view, members are merely delegates of their constituency and are not entitled to substitute their personal judgments for the will of their constituents. Their only difficulty is determining the will of those they are bound to follow. Knowledge of the electorate and targeted opinion polls are the essential requirements here.

The better constitutional view, however, states that a member has a personal, non-delegable duty to serve the interests of his or her constituents, but not necessarily to reflect their opinions or wishes. According to this view, a member is more like a trustee, duty bound to exercise his or her own personal judgment and decide each issue on its merits. While this is done on behalf of their constituents and the nation as a whole, a member’s duty as trustee of their best interests is to form his own opinion, not reflect the opinions of others. His or her difficulty is one of exercising personal judgment to reconcile competing interests. Here knowledge of all the issues and evaluation of the arguments and the relevant evidence are the essential requirements.

The distinction, though subtle, is crucial and was first enunciated by the great conservative political philosopher, Edmund Burke in a famous address to his own electors of Bristol in 1780:


“ ... it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in … the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him;
their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.

It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living….

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”


Any fair reading of the actions of the four independents in deciding which party they would support to form minority government would be that they adopted Burke’s conservative principled view of their duty. In the end, their constituents and the nation got what they deserved: the best efforts of their elected representatives to make up their own minds and make difficult choices on their behalf, even if they disagreed with them. For Burke, this is the primary moral duty of every elected representative to Parliament

While this would be obvious to the independents, the position is far less clear for members who are elected as party representatives. How is this classic theory of a member’s duty to constituents qualified by the member’s duty to their party? Once again, there are two competing views.

The first states that, once elected as a member of a party and on a party platform, a member is duty bound to delegate his or her personal responsibility to the party. The party then decides how the member will vote on all issues. The only concession is on issues where the party leadership, not the member, allows a “conscience” vote. Very occasionally, a member will cross the floor on an issue that disproportionately affects his or her local electorate.  Both these exceptions suggest that the duty to the party, despite being rigorously enforced, is not absolute.

The alternative view is that the member, in the exercise of his or her personal duty, decides that the best interests of their constituents and the nation as a whole are served by following the party policy that they have contributed to developing and were elected to fulfill.  For most “bread and butter” issues, this course is defensible. But the distinction once again, though subtle, is crucial. The member reserves the right to decide ultimately what issues fall into this category, not the party. Such a member is exercising power not delegating or abrogating it.

While both political parties exert considerable pressure on their members to toe the party line, both recognize extreme cases where a member’s conscience simply won’t allow them to do so, usually when being asked to vote contrary to a deeply held religious conviction that was held prior to their election. In other cases, the Liberal/National Parties will also tolerate a member crossing the floor from time to time on policy issues for other than “conscience” reasons, the case of Malcolm Turnbull and others on the climate change Bill being a clear example. Generally, the Labor Party frowns on any such exercise of independent judgment by its party members. 

So what about the free debate on the war in Afghanistan still in progress? Well, it is clear that the four independents decided for themselves and would have voted accordingly. Of the party members, Anna Burke(Lab), Kelvin Thomson(Lab), Jill Hall(Lab) and Mal Washer(Lib) have courageously exercised their own independent judgment contrary to their party’s policy. All other speakers so far have followed the party line. While some people may question the integrity of some of these members, they were at least prepared to nail their colours to the mast and are entitled to be judged accordingly. The test for their integrity would be whether they would have held to their stated views had their leadership decided at the last moment on an early withdrawal.

But what are we to make of those members who remain silent and are not being required to vote? Because their silence will be interpreted differently by different people - either as tacit assent or refusal to actively support - it is incumbent on them to show clearly where they stand. Their failure to indicate whether they support our continuing involvement or not is a clear case of abrogation of responsibility - the result perhaps of self interest, indifference or cowardice.

If the support for our continuing involvement in the war in Afghanistan is so overwhelming, as both major parties assert, then there should have been a vote on a motion to that effect. And members should have been allowed either a “conscience” vote or, as I have previously advocated, a free vote based on a principled evaluation of the arguments for and against.

For example, in evaluating “the alliance” argument, a conflict needs to be resolved between our national interests and our communal values that prohibit the sacrifice of human life solely to please our friends for future advantage.  In deciding whether to stand against their party policy on such an issue, a similar conflict arises for individual members between their career interests and their personal duty to decide such issues for themselves on behalf of their electorate.

Moral problems like these can only be resolved by individual acts of moral courage. You cannot delegate your conscience. Such moral issues need to be confronted by reference to the values we profess to live by, not by the interests we and others want to advance.

In cases where these issues arise, our representatives in Parliament need to be reminded of their duty, as enunciated by Burke, to exercise their own judgment and conscience. For this is precisely the trust that we place in them. But the question is: are they up to it?

On Tasmanian Times:
Scott McInnes
Max Atkinson