How the Government can lose a vote but stay in power, and why today’s situation is extraordinary – Politics
The Government lost a legislative vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
- The Government gets its power from control of the Lower House
- It lost a vote in the Lower House yesterday, the first time this has happened in decades
- Independents continue to offer support for the Government on ordinary business
It’s an incredibly rare event in Australian history that has led to the fall of Governments.
Here’s why this situation might be different.
It’s just one vote. How bad can a loss be?
In Australia’s system of government, the political party (or coalition of parties) with the support of a majority of members in the House of Representatives becomes the governing party.
Losing a vote in the House of Representatives is a very public display that this support is absent.
It is something governments have tried hard to avoid.
For example, the threat of his own party members voting against the Liberals’ signature energy policy — thereby forcing a vote loss — was enough for former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to abandon the policy altogether in August.
When was the last time this happened?
It depends on how you characterise the type of vote.
The House of Representatives has stated the last time a government lost a “legislative vote” was during World War II, almost 80 years ago.
The outcome was delivered by two key independents scrapping support for the government of Arthur Fadden.
One of them, Arthur Coles, told The Argus newspaper following the vote “I will support Labour in its efforts to bring about a virile war policy”.
The 1941 vote was described by The Argus as a “budget censure motion”: it symbolically cut the budget by a single pound.
An earlier loss could be said to have more in common with the medical evacuation bill.
In 1929, an amendment to the Maritime Industries Bill was agreed to against the government’s wishes.
It meant the law would have to be submitted to the people either at a referendum or a general election.
Following this, the House was dissolved at the request of prime minister Stanley Bruce.
Later, in 1962, an opposition amendment to remove clauses from a Menzies government bill was agreed to.
However, at the same sitting the government had the bill reconsidered and the omitted words were reinserted.
The office of the House of Representatives Clerk has described this later loss as “not significant”.
How have these losses played out in the past?
A fatal vote loss has become less common over the years.
In the first decade after federation, the government resigned five times after losing votes in the House.
But since then, it has happened only three times: 1921, 1929 and 1941.
Although the Menzies government survived its 1962 vote loss, its precarious majority of one was a factor that led to an early dissolution.
More recently both the Gillard and Turnbull governments have lost votes, mostly on procedural matters, but retained the confidence of the House.
How can a government lose a vote but still stay in power?
Losing an important vote, such as ensuring the government has enough money to run, bringing a key government policy into law or a motion determining confidence in the government, could prove fatal.
But on a less important matter, such as a procedural vote or an item put forward by a private member, a loss might prove to be little minor than a minor embarrassment.
In the current Parliament crossbenchers Bob Katter, Rebekha Sharkie, Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan, Kerryn Phelps and Julia Banks have promised to support the Government’s ongoing business.
That means the Government should have the support to keep it running until the election later this year.