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Parliament: Making And Breaking Governments

In Australia, the government is drawn from the party or parties that commands a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the “people’s house”.

To survive in office, a government has to retain the confidence of the House.

Whilst the making and breaking of governments is generally exercised at the ballot box by the voters, there are occasions when the House is called upon to express its confidence, or lack of confidence, in the government.

In the first ten years of Federation – 1901-10 – a number of governments fell on the floor of the House of Representatives. They were replaced without elections.

The last time an Australian government was defeated on the floor of the House was in 1941, when two independent members who held the balance of power switched their allegiance from the conservative government of Arthur Fadden to the Labor Party led by John Curtin. The Curtin government took office and did not face the electorate until 1943.

In 2010, the Gillard Labor government lost its majority at the federal election. It put together a governing arrangement with the Greens, two NSW rural independents and a Tasmanian independent that allowed it to form a minority government. The support of these disparate members was given in a number of votes in the House of Representatives.

Whilst it is true that the Parliament is rarely called upon to express overall confidence in the government of the day, the government is always conscious of the need to maintain its numbers in the House in order to pass legislation, control debating procedures and to out-maneouvre the Opposition.

It is more common for State governments to be made or broken on the floor of Parliament:

  • Victoria 1999 – After 3 independent members announced that they would support the ALP, the coalition government led by Jeff Kennett tendered its resignation. This followed an election in which neither the ALP or coalition won a majority of seats. Whilst Kennett could have tested the resolve of the independent members by forcing them to vote him out of office, he chose to accept the inevitability of the outcome.
  • Queensland 1996 – The Goss Labor government lost its majority in the Queensland Legislative Assembly following a by-election in the seat of Mundingburra in February 1996. The independent member for Gladstone, Liz Cunningham, then held the balance of power and announced that she would support a coalition government led by Rob Borbidge. Goss resigned and Borbidge became Premier, governing until the next election in June 1998.
  • Queensland 1998 – Following the 1998 general election, the ALP, led by Peter Beattie, had 44 seats in the 89-seat Legislative Assembly. Following a decision by the independent member for Nicklin, Peter Wellington, to support the ALP, subject to conditions, Beattie took office.
  • New South Wales 1992 – The Greiner coalition government lost its majority at the 1992 election and subsequently signed an agreement with 5 independent members which gave the government a lower house majority.
  • Tasmania 1989 – The Liberal government led by Robin Gray lost its majority at the 1989 election. It held 17 seats, compared to 13 for the ALP and 5 members of the Greens. The Greens signed an accord with the ALP, but Gray refused to resign until he was defeated on a vote of confidence in the House of Assembly.
  • South Australia 2002 – The Rann Labor government of 2002 was formed following an inconclusive election. Following the opening of Parliament on March 5, 2002, the then Liberal Premier, Rob Kerin, moved a motion of confidence in his Liberal government. The motion was defeated by 23 votes to 22 with one abstention. Kerin then surrendered his commission to the Governor, Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, recommending that she call upon Mike Rann and commission him to form a government. Rann formed a minority government with the support of Peter Lewis, an independent who had formerly been a Liberal member. Lewis was made Speaker.

Motion of No Confidence

Because of the importance attached to the role of the House of Representatives in deciding the government, the most important motion that can be moved in the chamber is a motion of “no confidence”.

Traditionally, if the Opposition moves a motion along these lines, all scheduled parliamentary business is suspended to allow the motion to be debated immediately.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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