• Terry Dunleavy MBE, of Takapuna, is a writer and long-standing member and officer of the National Party.

There is sad but foreboding irony in the shallow political populism of Winston Peters. There is little doubt he calls the shots in his NZ First party, who made it clear at the outset their policy on Act MP David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill was for New Zealanders to have a national discussion over at least two years, followed by a binding referendum. To that end, NZ First voted en bloc for the first reading of the Bill.

Fresh from extracting personal utu against the National Party for the imagined insult of leaking his superannuation over-payment problems, and thus exposing the country to government by a coalition of the unprepared, Peters and his puppets now put at risk one of the most precious and essential bedrocks of our parliamentary system - the conscience vote.

The Westminster parliamentary system has no greater historical champion than Edmund Burke, the great Irish statesman who said, "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."

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There is no issue of conscience more important than the sanctity of human life: its beginning, its continuity and its ending.

In the whole history of our New Zealand Parliament there has probably never been a conscience vote issue of such significance as the 1961 vote that abolished the death penalty for murder. For background, the official history tells us: "The Labour Party had opposed capital punishment and after it took office in 1935 it commuted all death sentences to life in prison. This policy was confirmed by the abolition of the death penalty for murder in 1941. The National government restored it in 1950, and from 1951 to 1957 there were 18 convictions for murder and eight executions.

"Labour returned to office in late 1957 and, the following year, made the death penalty inoperative.

"The National Party returned to power in 1960, but this time there was dissent within the ranks on the matter. The Minister of Justice, Hon J R Hanan, was a strong abolitionist as was the Secretary for Justice, Dr D L Robson. In 1961, Parliament held a free vote on an amendment to the Crimes Act abolishing the death penalty.

"With the support of 10 government members, including future Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, the amendment was carried 41 to 30. Capital punishment was retained for treason until the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act in 1989."

What was notable in that 1961 vote was that Minister of Justice Ralph Hanan, who introduced the amendment to the Crimes Act that sought to restore capital punishment, not only used his own free (conscience) vote against the measure but carried nine of his National colleagues with him to vote with the Labour Opposition to defeat the amendment.

Now that Hansard debates for the last 150 years are available, it should be incumbent on all current MPs to read every word of that 1961 debate, in which they will get some understanding of why Edmund Burke was right in his comment about MPs owing their constituents their judgment. Important, nay in this case, vital, conscience issues demand more than the bumper-sticker, kneejerk reactions that tend to drive public referenda.

Euthanasia is one issue on which MPs cannot simply just pass the buck to the public. This is an issue which they, and they alone, should decide as a matter of conscience in the spirit of that memorable 1961 debate.

Already, euthanasia has been described as a "licence to kill", and the start of a "slippery slope". But, subjecting it to a binding referendum may also be the first step in a slippery slope to the death of parliamentary democracy.

Followers of the Alex cartoon in the Business Herald will know of the concerns of Alex and Clive about the use by Megabank of robots and their artificial intelligence. Is it going too far to contemplate that, in this information technology age in which just about everyone, bar the very few, is contactable instantly by smartphone, we have the means by which referenda could render superfluous decisions in the House of Representatives?

Over-imagination? Maybe, but those 71 MPs who voted on the floor of the House on capital punishment in 1961 would have thought me mad if I had predicted that 56 years later they could sit in Bellamys or their office or wherever, and have their vote cast for them by a whip, along with those of colleagues chosen by their party for election as a "list".