The Irish Times states that “Ireland is now one of the few parliamentary democracies in which members of parliament are not allowed free votes on issues of conscience.” It cites many cases of free votes (also known as “conscience votes”) on issues such as homosexuality law reform, gambling, abortion, and numerous other matters in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Leaving aside the technicality that Ireland can be classified as semi-presidential–the presidency really is weak enough that we can call it parliamentary–is it possible that the use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect the Dail (parliament’s first chamber) is a factor?
The editorial correctly notes that such votes occur “where views differ strongly within parliamentary parties”. What might STV have to do with this? It would be a whole lot more dangerous for party leadership to open up its divisions to be recorded on the floor in a system where the members could then compete for votes on precisely these internal divisions.
Whatever the underlying cause in variation in the use of free/conscience votes, one thing is certain: such votes are called when the government wants them. This could be when it prefers not to be held collectively accountable for some issue (let it pass but don’t call it your program), or when the government favors the passage of some measure that enjoys majority support in parliament but divides its own caucus (be sure it passes, but let your MPs claim credit for having tried to stop it). In other words, when there is conflict between the individual interests of MPs and their parties’ collective interests. If the electoral system reinforces such conflicts–as STV surely does, but FPTP, MMP, and closed-list PR do not–then we might expect parties, when in government, to do what they can to keep such conflicts from spilling into the open.
In any case, the usual agenda control of parliamentary cabinets means that we can understand these votes only by understanding governing parties’ decision calculus. What are the conditions under which free votes are seen as desirable or risky by those who decide to apply, or not, the government whip on a vote?