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How The Turnbull Government Lost Control Of The House

The absence of nine members of the Coalition caused the Turnbull government to lose control of the House of Representatives for nearly two hours last night.


When a procedural motion to adjourn the House was put at 5.00pm, the ALP surprisingly voted No and called for a division, which it won by 69 votes to 67. The ALP then took control of the proceedings of the House and initiated a debate on a Senate resolution calling for a royal commission into the banking system.

Over the next 45 minutes, the government lost two more divisions and did not regain control of the House until 6.50pm, after coalition MPs were brought back into the chamber.

It was the first time since 1962 that a majority government has lost votes in the House of Representatives. Like the Turnbull government, the then Menzies government also governed with a one-seat majority.

The Banking Royal Commission

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s call for a royal commission into the banking system has been maintained before, during and after the election.

On the first business day of the new Parliament, August 31, the House rejected by 75 votes to 73 a motion calling for a royal commission. The government required all 75 of its members on the floor to defeat the combined forces of the ALP and the five crossbenchers.

The motion moved in the House was similar to the one passed by the Senate on September 1:

Motion passed on the voices by the Senate at 12.30pm, September 1, 2016.

That the Senate—

(a) notes that:

(i) confidence and trust in the financial services industry has been shaken by ongoing revelations of scandals, which have resulted in tens of thousands of Australians being ripped off, including:

(A) retirees who have had their retirement savings gutted,

(B) families who have been rorted out of hundreds of thousands of dollars,

(C) small business owners who have lost everything, and

(D) life insurance policy holders who have been denied justice,

(ii) it is clear from the breadth and scope of the allegations that the problems in this industry go beyond any one bank or type of financial institution,

(iii) the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens, crossbench, Liberal and Nationals parliamentarians have supported a thorough investigation of the culture and practices within the financial services industry through a Royal Commission, which is the only forum with the coercive powers and broad jurisdiction necessary to properly perform this investigation, and

(iv) Australia has one of the strongest banking systems in the world, but Australians must have confidence in their banks and financial institutions, making it necessary to sweep away doubt and uncover and deal with unethical behaviour that compromises that confidence; and

(b) calls on the Prime Minister to request His Excellency the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia issue Letters Patent to establish a Royal Commission to inquire into misconduct in the banking and financial services industry, including their agents and managed investment schemes.

The Senate requests the concurrence of the House in this resolution.

The Pre-Adjournment Motion

The Senate’s motion was reported to the House at 4.16pm. In keeping with normal practice, a government minister, Luke Hartsuyker, moved: That consideration of the message be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

The ALP’s Tony Burke then moved an amendment to Hartsuyker’s motion: That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words – “the message be taken into consideration immediately.”

At 4.18pm, a division took place on the amendment. It was defeated by 73 votes to 71. All five crossbenchers (Katter, Bandt, Wilkie, McGowan & Sharkie) voted with the ALP.

Interestingly, in the light of later events, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce did not vote in this division. Hansard lists no pairs. However, the absence of Turnbull and Joyce was offset by the absence of two ALP members, Jason Clare and Luke Gosling. Luke Hartsuyker voted, although he tweeted that he was paired in a later division.


The Adjournment Debate

At 4.30pm, the House moved to the Adjournment Debate. The Standing Orders set a time each day for an Adjournment Debate of 30 minutes during which members can raise electorate issues. Since Thursday was the end of the sitting week, the House was set to adjourn at 5.00pm.

Six MPs spoke in the Adjournment and then the Speaker (Tony Smith) made a statement about the death of Romaldo Giurgola, who was the principal design architect of the new Parliament House.


The Government Loses Its First Vote

At 4.59pm, the Speaker put the motion: “The question now is that the House do now adjourn.” Whilst normally passed on the voices, this time the ALP called for a division. At 5.14pm, the division resulted in a victory for the ALP, 69 votes to 67. The Opposition had prevented the adjournment of the House.

The ALP’s 69 votes consisted of all 68 Labor MPs, plus Bob Katter (KAP-Kennedy). One ALP member, Clare O’Neil (Hotham), was absent on family leave. She had been excused from attendance until November by a resolution of the House on its opening day.

The government’s 67 votes consisted of 65 coalition MPs, plus Andrew Wilkie (Ind-Denison) and Rebekha Sharkie (NXT-Mayo).

Nine government MPs were absent, including three ministers. The ministers were Peter Dutton, Michael Keenan and Christian Porter. We now know that Dutton was giving a radio interview and Keenan was flying to Melbourne.

Six backbenchers were absent: John Alexander (Lib-Bennelong), Scott Buchholz (Lib-Wright), Craig Kelly (Lib-Hughes), Ken O’Dowd (Nats-Flynn), Ross Vasta (Lib-Bonner) and Jason Wood (Lib-La Trobe).

Luke Hartsuyker (Nats-Cowper) later tweeted that he was paired with Clare O’Neil and did not vote in this division.

If just three of the nine absent MPs had been present in the chamber, the government would not have been defeated.

Adam Bandt (Greens-Melbourne) and Cathy McGowan (Ind-Indi) were also absent at this stage. McGowan was on her way home and took no part in the proceedings.

The Opposition Decides The Next Item of Business


The power in the House of Representatives had now shifted from the government to the Opposition.

At 5.14pm, Anthony Albanese moved a new amendment to the Hartsuyker motion of an hour earlier: That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words – “the message be taken into consideration at 5.20pm today or the first available opportunity thereafter.”

At this point, Christopher Pyne, the Leader of the House, had a fight on his hands. As he started to speak on the motion, Tony Burke moved: That the question be put. The effect of such a motion is to curtail debate and move immediately to a vote.

The Government’s Second Defeat

At 5.20pm, the House divided on Burke’s motion. It was carried 71 votes to 70. The Opposition had now effectively gagged the government’s Leader of the House and brought on a vote on Burke’s amendment.

The ALP’s 69 votes from the previous division were now augmented by Andrew Wilkie and Rebekha Sharkie. Whilst they voted for the adjournment motion, perhaps not realising what was happening, they came on board with the ALP because they each support a banking royal commission.

Four of the Coalition’s MPs were back for this vote: Scott Buchholz, Ken O’Dowd, Christian Porter and Jason Wood. Luke Hartsuyker abandoned his pair with Clare O’Neil and voted in this and all subsequent divisions.

Two ministers (Dutton and Keenan) and three backbenchers (Alexander, Kelly and Vasta) remained absent.

Adam Bandt also missed this vote, although the ALP succeeded without it.

The Government’s Third Defeat

The second motion was a procedural vote to allow a vote on the ALP’s amendment. Having passed, the House now proceeded directly to a vote on the amendment.

At 5.29pm, the Speaker put the motion: The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

This was passed, again by 71 votes to 70. There was no change to the voting configuration from the second division.

The effect of this division was to amend the government’s motion and facilitate an immediate consideration of the Senate’s message.

The Speaker moved to bring on debate on the amended motion: The question now is that the motion, as amended, be agreed to.

Treasurer Scott Morrison rose to his feet to describe the ALP’s moves as a “tactless stunt”. However, Tony Burke moved the gag: That the question be now put.

The Speaker Saves The Day For The Government


The fourth division in thirty minutes was tied 71 votes for Ayes and Noes.

The government’s position improved at this point because Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had returned to the chamber. Four government MPs remained absent: Minister Keenan and backbenchers Alexander, Kelly and Vasta.

A tied vote in the House means that the Speaker gets a casting vote. At 5.42pm, Speaker Tony Smith explained to the House that practice required him to allow further discussion where this is possible: I therefore cast my vote with the noes, and that is against closure of the debate.

Over the next hour, a series of speakers spoke on the motion. First, Treasurer Morrison spoke, followed by Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce. During Joyce’s speech, Anthony Albanese moved: That the question be now put. The Speaker ruled that he would not accept the motion because this would limit debate and be “an abuse of the orders or forms of the House”.

When Joyce’s time expired, Albanese again moved: That the question be now put. The Speaker again refused to accept the motion because “I need to allow a reasonable level of debate”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten then spoke. The Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, Kelly O’Dwyer, responded.


Then Bob Katter spoke in favour of a royal commission: “I am simply saying to you that I, like the rest of Australia, would not have faith in this place being able to address the problems of the banking industry. I would have faith in a royal commission because I have seen it at work and I have seen its enormous effectiveness in achieving the goals it was after.”

By now it was 6.20pm and the Minister for Small Business, Michael McCormack, spoke. He was followed by to-and-fro between the government, opposition and the Speaker as to whether enough debate had taken place. The government was playing for time – filibustering – to get its members back in the chamber, whilst the ALP was keen to pass the substantive motion calling for a royal commission.

More discussion took place about the mechanics of the debate before Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen rose to speak at 6.34pm. He was the last speaker before the government reasserted its control of the House.

The Government Regains Control


At 6.36pm, Christopher Pyne moved: That the debate be adjourned. He was clearly confident that the government now had the numbers in the chamber. However, he jumped the gun by moving the motion whilst Bowen was still on his feet. As Speaker Smith said: The Leader of the House is entitled to move that motion, but not while someone is speaking.

Bowen resumed speaking for several minutes. Aware that control had now slipped out of its hands, the ALP sought to extend debate. Tony Burke moved that Bowen be given a 15-minute extension of time. Speaker Smith told him that under the Standing Orders Bowen could only be given an extra 5 minutes. This was granted on the voices.

Finally, at 6.49pm, Christopher Pyne was able to move: That the debate be adjourned.

The division turned in the government’s favour. At 6.54pm, the motion was carried by 73 votes to 72.

By now, backbenchers John Alexander and Craig Kelly had returned to the chamber. Reports say Alexander had been driving back to Sydney when he was recalled.

Only Michael Keenan and Ross Vasta remained absent.

On the other side, Adam Bandt had returned and lifted the ALP’s support from 71 to 72.

If Cathy McGowan had been in the chamber, the Speaker’s casting vote would have again been required. If McGowan and Clare O’Neil had both been present, the ALP would have been able to defeat the government a fourth time. Effectively, McGowan and O’Neil were now paired with Keenan and Vasta, giving the government a one-vote majority.

The Opposition was not going to make it easy for the government. It took four more divisions on procedure to finally adjourn the House at 7.20pm.

Who Didn’t Vote – House of Reps – Sep 1, 2016
Motion 1
Govt Loss
Motion 2
Govt Loss
Motion 3
Govt Loss
Motion 4
Motion 5
Govt Win
Motions 6-9
Govt Win
Keenan (Lib)
Porter (Lib)
Dutton (Lib)
Alexander (Lib)
Buchholz (Lib)
Kelly (Lib)
O’Dowd (Nats)
Vasta (Lib)
Wood (Lib)
Hartsuyker (Nats) (paired)
Bandt (Greens)
McGowan (Ind)


A Bad Week For The Re-Elected Government

With the 45th Parliament only in its third day, these two hours demonstrate that government members have not adjusted to the new reality that they hold government by just one seat. None of the nine absent members are new MPs. All have been in Parliament for at least one term, and most for much more than that.

Whether the Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, is to blame for the debacle is not clear. It may be down to the Government Whips. Just as likely, the absences may have been personal decisions by the individual members. Whatever the reason, it reflects a casual attitude to the institution they must control in order to remain in their jobs.

The pictures from the event show a furious prime minister and a rampant Opposition. Whilst the spectacle may disgust some, it will also appal political professionals. The government has revealed itself to be sloppy and unable to cope with Politics 101. It faces a Labor Party for which using and mis-using the rules of debate is second nature. Watch the videos above to see the ALP frontbench orchestrate an embarrassment for the government. They are classics of the genre.

Earlier in the week, the government was embarrassed by an accounting error in its Omnibus Bill of spending cuts. Mistakes happen and good governments can ride out the consequences of occasional error. However, when it starts to look accident-prone, a government still grappling with the aftermath of deposing a first-term prime minister is in trouble.

UPDATE: – A number of media articles have provided additional information about the events described on this page. They include reports of an ALP “spotter” at Canberra Airport looking for government MPs on their way out of the capital. Other incidents of subterfuge by the ALP include a Labor MP wheeling a suitcase around Parliament House to create the impression that he was leaving.

On the ABC’s Insiders program on September 4, Tony Burke said the decision to attempt a derailment of the adjournment was only made at 4.53pm. Another report says that Burke asked Steve Georganas to cut short his speech in the Adjournment Debate so that the debate finished prior to 5.00pm, thus requiring the Speaker to put the adjournment question to a vote.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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