Monday, 20 September 2010

A reason for referendums - the tyranny of the minority

When you accept that the first desire of a a politician is to be elected and that the second is to be re-elected, a lot of things about political behaviour become clear. Most importantly it does not mean that a politician is primarily concerned about what a majority of his or her constituents support. The calculation is about which voters might change their vote because of the decision the member might make on any particular issue.
It is what I call the tyranny of the minority. Two or three percent of voters who feel so strongly about an issue that they will change the way they vote because of it are far more worrying for an MP than the 97% of voters who, whatever their views on the issue, do not feel strongly enough about it to change their vote because of it.
In practice the occasions when this tyranny of the minority manifests itself are on those rare occasions when MPs are allowed by their political parties to exercise a conscience vote. In determining what their conscience tells them on these occasions parliamentarians cannot escape a calculation about what their vote will do to their re-election chances.
On moral matters -questions like abortion, euthanasia and more recently stem cell research - which are the normal ones where conscience votes are allowed by the major political parties, the "antis" in the public are more likely to feel strongly about the issue than the "pros" and thus the ones more likely to change their vote. Thus meant politicians, whatever their own views on the issue, will tend to vote in favour of self preservation rather than their own principles.
It was my understanding of this natural enough reaction of politicians which was behind my advice many years ago to euthanasia advocates to stop trying to get Parliaments to pass laws legalising euthanasia. My client as a lobbyist at the time was the Northern Territory Government whose Parliament had passed legislation to legalise euthanasia only to have the Federal Parliament over rule it.
This display of political self interest, or cowardice, call it what you will, suggested to me that the most likely way of getting change to laws involving moral issues was by way of referendum. The lobbying effort of the euthanasia advocates would have more chance of success if devoted towards persuading reluctant politicians to letting the people decide.
My view about this strategy has not changed and I expect that the efforts of Greens Leader Bob Brown to repeal the Federal legislation over riding the decisions of Territory Governments to re-open the prospect of euthanasia laws will have great trouble succeeding.
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