Motions of no confidence and censure

The Government

Perhaps the most crucial motions considered by the House of Representatives are those which express censure of or no confidence in a Government,[245] as it is an essential tenet of the Westminster system that the Government must possess the confidence of the lower (representative) House. By convention, loss of the confidence of the House normally requires the Government to resign in favour of an alternative Government or to advise a dissolution of the House of Representatives. The importance of such motions or amendments is recognised by the rule that any motion of which notice has been given, or amendment,[246] which expresses censure of or no confidence in the Government, and is accepted by a Minister as a motion or amendment of censure or no confidence, has priority of all other business until disposed of.[247] Additional speaking time is allotted to these motions—the mover of the motion, who is usually the Leader of the Opposition, may speak for 30 minutes; the Prime Minister or a Minister deputed by the Prime Minister may also speak for 30 minutes, and any other Member for 20 minutes.[248]

A notice of motion not accepted by a Minister in the terms of standing order 48 is treated in the same manner as any other notice given by a private Member and is entered on the Notice Paper under private Members’ business. Although action may be taken to bring the matter on for debate immediately or at an early stage, such a motion does not attract the increased speaking times of an accepted censure or no confidence motion.[249] The Government may not accept a notice as a no confidence motion immediately it is reported to the House[250], but it may be accepted on the next sitting day[251] or some future day,[252] after which it takes precedence until disposed of.

The importance with which no confidence motions were regarded historically is reflected in the fact that on occasions, the last being in 1947, the House has adjourned until the next sitting day following notice being given of such a motion.[253] Also, it was often the case in the past that the Senate remained adjourned while the Government was under challenge in this way in the House.[254] However, the importance of these motions, from both a parliamentary and public point of view, has lessened in more recent years because of the increasing frequency of censure motions generally (mostly censure of the Prime Minister or Ministers, rather than of the Government).[255] In the modern House, pressure of business is such as to preclude an adjournment.

A motion of censure of or no confidence in the Government usually relates to certain specified acts or omissions. However, a no confidence motion does not always contain reasons in its terms.[256]

A Government’s continuation in office is dependent on it surviving a motion of no confidence. A motion (or amendment) expressing censure of the Government, although not seen in the same light as one expressing no confidence, is still of vital importance. A censure motion, as the words imply, expresses more a disapproval or reprimand at particular actions or policies of the Government, and an early authority has stated that it would:

… ordinarily lead to [the Government’s] retirement from office, or to a dissolution … unless the act complained of be disavowed, when the retirement of the minister who was especially responsible for it will propitiate the House, and satisfy its sense of justice.[257]

On no occasion has a vote of no confidence in a Government, or a motion or amendment censuring a Government, been successful in the House of Representatives.[258]

Withdrawal of confidence shown by defeat on other questions

The withdrawal by the House of its confidence in the Government may be shown:

  • By a direct vote of censure of or no confidence in the Government.
  • By defeat on an issue central to government policy or rejecting a legislative measure proposed by the Government, the acceptance of which the Government has declared to be of vital importance. Conversely, a vote by the House agreeing to a particular legislative measure or provision contrary to the advice and consent of the Government could similarly be regarded as a matter of confidence. Following defeat a Government may choose to resign, as in April and August 1904, 1929 and 1941 (see page 322), or to seek a direct vote of confidence.
  • By defeat of the Government on a vote not necessarily central to government policy but accepted by the Government as one of confidence, as in 1905, 1908, 1909 and 1931 (see page  322).

A defeat of the Government in the House of Representatives does not necessarily mean it has lost the confidence of the House or that it ought to resign. As Jennings states:

It must not be thought … that a single defeat necessarily demands either resignation or dissolution. Such a result follows only where the defeat implies loss of confidence … .[259]
What a Government will treat as a matter of sufficient importance to demand resignation or dissolution is, primarily, a question for the Government. The Opposition can always test the opinion of the House by a vote of no confidence. No Government [in the United Kingdom] since 1832 has failed to regard such a motion, if carried, as decisive. A House whose opinion was rejected has always at hand the ultimate remedy of the refusal of supply.[260]

A Government may consider it appropriate, if it is defeated on a matter which it deems to be of sufficient importance, to seek the feeling of the House at the first opportunity by means of a motion of confidence. A motion of confidence could also be used pre-emptively—for example, in October 1975 Prime Minister Whitlam, following an announcement of the Opposition’s intention to delay in the Senate bills appropriating money for the ordinary annual services of the Government, moved a motion of confidence in the Government. An amendment was moved and negatived and the original motion agreed to.[261]

In 1903 the Government was defeated on an important amendment to a Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. Prime Minister Barton stated that the vote created a situation of some gravity and the Ministry would consider its position before any further business was undertaken. The next day he announced that the Government could not accept the amendment or proceed with the bill as amended and, therefore, the Government intended to drop the bill.[262] The same Government also decided not to proceed with the Papua (British Papua New Guinea) Bill after the Government was defeated on certain amendments.[263] Government defeats on tariff matters were not uncommon during this period[264] and in 1904 the Watson Government suffered other defeats to its conciliation and arbitration legislation prior to the defeat that led to its resignation.[265] When the motion for the second reading of a government bill was negatived in 1922 (the only time this has occurred), this was not taken as signifying a loss of confidence in the Hughes Government.[266]

Although it has been claimed that the loss of control of the business of the House is a matter over which Governments should resign, the loss of a vote on such an issue is not necessarily fatal for a Government. In 1908 Prime Minister Deakin resigned when he accepted that any amendment to a motion to alter the hour of next meeting was a challenge to his Government, and the 1909 and 1931 resignations of Governments followed from similar acceptances (see below). In each case the Governments were on the point of losing the necessary support to remain in power. In 1923, however, the Government having lost control of the business of the House the previous evening, Prime Minister Bruce confidently assured the Opposition ‘the Government will very soon take it back into its own hands today’.[267] During 1962 and 1963, when the Menzies Government had a floor majority[268] of one, it suffered a number of defeats on procedural motions[269] and, although it did not resign, its precarious majority was a factor which led to an early dissolution.[270] During the 43rd Parliament the minority Gillard Government lost a significant number of divisions.[271] In the 45th Parliament the Turnbull Government, with a floor majority of one, was defeated on several procedural motions.[272]

While there has never been a successful vote of no confidence or censure of a Government in the House of Representatives, on eight occasions Governments have either resigned or advised a dissolution following their defeat on other questions:

  • Deakin Ministry, 21 April 1904—The Government resigned following its defeat 29:38 in committee (detail stage) on an amendment moved by the Opposition to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Bill.[273]
  • Watson Ministry, 12 August 1904—The Government resigned following its defeat 34:36 on an amendment to its motion that the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Bill, which it inherited from the previous Government and carried through the committee (detail) stage, be recommitted for consideration of certain clauses and a schedule.[274]
  • Reid Ministry, 30 June 1905—The Government resigned following the House agreeing 42:25 to an amendment to the Address in Reply (proposing to add the words ‘but are of the opinion that practical measures should be proceeded with’).[275]
  • Deakin Ministry, 10 November 1908—The Government resigned following its defeat 13:49 on an amendment to the motion to alter the hour of next meeting.[276]
  • Fisher Ministry, 27 May 1909—The Government resigned following defeat 30:39 on a motion moved by a private Member to adjourn debate on the Address in Reply.[277]
  • Bruce–Page Ministry, 10 September 1929—The Governor-General accepted the Prime Minister’s advice to dissolve the House after an amendment had been agreed to in committee (detail stage) to the Maritime Industries Bill (35:34). The amendment was to the effect that proclamation of the Act would not be earlier than its submission to the people either at a referendum or a general election.[278]
  • Scullin Ministry, 25 November 1931—The Governor-General accepted the Prime Minister’s advice to dissolve the House after the question ‘That the House do now adjourn’ was agreed to 37:32, against the wishes of the Government.[279]
  • Fadden Ministry, 3 October 1941—The Government resigned when, during the Budget debate in committee of supply, an opposition amendment to the effect that the first item in the estimates be reduced by a nominal sum (£1) was agreed to 36:33.[280]

These cases are outlined in more detail in previous editions.

There have been other cases of interest which did not lead to a change of Government:

  • In 1908 the Government lost a division 28:31 on the question that the debate be adjourned on a motion and amendment. Prime Minister Deakin issued a challenge of confidence on the next division which was decided in favour of the Government.[281]
  • The Hughes Ministry resigned in January 1918 following the defeat of its proposals in the second conscription plebiscite in December 1917. Prime Minister Hughes gave the Governor-General no advice as to what should be done and after seeking advice from representatives of all sections of the House the Governor-General commissioned Hughes to form another Ministry.[282]
  • In 1921 the Hughes Government was defeated on a motion to adjourn the House to discuss an urgent matter of definite public importance. The House then adjourned for five days and on its resumption the Prime Minister gave Members an opportunity of registering their opinion by a vote on a motion to print a paper, to which the Opposition moved an amendment seeking the resignation of the Prime Minister. The amendment was defeated 46:23, and the original motion agreed to on the same figures.[283]
  • In 1975 the Fraser caretaker Government did not have a majority on the floor of the House and on its appointment was defeated on several procedural motions and a resolution of want of confidence in the Prime Minister. The House was dissolved, but not as a consequence of the resolution—see below.

Prime Minister and other Ministers

From time to time a specific motion of censure of or no confidence in a particular Minister or Ministers may be moved by the Opposition. The first case occurred in 1941, but the motion lapsed for the want of a seconder.[284] Such motions have become comparatively frequent in recent years,[285] often being directed at the Prime Minister. While the standing orders provide that a motion of censure of or no confidence in the Government shall have priority of all other business if it is accepted by a Minister as a censure or no confidence motion, there is no similar provision in respect of a motion of censure of or no confidence in a Minister. Such a motion is therefore, at least in theory, treated in the same way as any other private Member’s motion, including the speech times applicable to an ordinary motion, although after such a notice of motion has been given, standing orders may be suspended to enable the motion to be moved immediately.[286] It is common for Members, instead of lodging notices of such motions, to move to suspend standing orders to enable them to be moved immediately,[287] or for the substantive motion to be moved by leave.[288] A motion of censure of a Minister has been initiated by government action—the Leader of the House moving to suspend so much of standing orders as would prevent a shadow minister being compelled to move a motion of censure of the Minister ‘in place of the innuendo and imputation he is attempting to make by means of questions without notice’.[289]

A vote against the Prime Minister would have serious consequences for the Government. If the House expressed no confidence in the Prime Minister, convention would require that, having lost the support of the majority of the House of Representatives, the Ministry as a whole should resign, or alternatively the Prime Minister may advise a dissolution.

The only occasion that a motion of censure of or no confidence in a Prime Minister has been successful was on 11 November 1975, when, following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, a motion of no confidence in newly commissioned Prime Minister Fraser was agreed to. The terms of the motion also requested the Speaker to advise the Governor-General to call another Member, the former Prime Minister, to form a Government. The sitting was suspended to enable the Speaker to convey the resolution to the Governor-General, but did not resume as both Houses were dissolved by proclamation of the Governor-General.[290]

No motion of censure of or no confidence in an individual Minister other than the Prime Minister has been successful in the House. The solidarity of the Ministry and the government party or parties will normally ensure that a Minister under attack will survive a censure motion in the House. The effect of carrying such a motion against a Minister may be inconclusive as far as the House is concerned, as any further action would be in the hands of the Prime Minister, but parliamentary pressure has caused the resignation or dismissal of Ministers on a number of occasions.[291]

If a motion of no confidence in, or censure of, a Minister were successful and its grounds were directly related to government policy, the question of the Minister or the Government continuing to hold office would be one for the Prime Minister to decide. If the grounds related to the Minister’s administration of his or her department or fitness otherwise to hold ministerial office, the Government would not necessarily accept full responsibility for the matter, leaving the question of resignation to the particular Minister or to the Prime Minister.

A motion of lack of confidence in a Senate Minister has been moved in the House, and negatived.[292] Motions have been moved expressing no confidence in, or censure of, both the Prime Minister and another Minister.[293]

Censure of Minister or Government by Senate

Once rare,[294] censure motions in the Senate against Ministers or the Government are now a relatively common occurrence. The first successful Senate censure of a Minister occurred in 1973 when an amendment expressing want of confidence in the Attorney-General (Senator Murphy) was agreed. On the following sitting day a motion of confidence in the Attorney-General was agreed to in the House.[295] In 1974 a motion was moved in the Senate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Willesee) was ‘deserving of censure and ought to resign’ because of three separate issues. The question was divided and the motion as it related to one of the issues was agreed to.[296] On 13 September 1984 the Senate agreed to a motion of censure of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Walsh). Since then the Senate has agreed to several such motions. Apart from motions censuring Senate Ministers, these have included motions directed at House Ministers,[297] House Ministers together with the Senate Ministers representing them in the Senate,[298] the Prime Minister,[299] and the Government.[300] The passage of a censure motion in the Senate would appear to have no substantive effect. However it may, depending on the circumstances, be seen as contributing to the parliamentary and other pressures leading to a Minister’s resignation or dismissal.[301]

Censure of a Member or Senator

On a number of occasions a motion of censure of the Leader of the Opposition, or an amendment expressing censure in the form of an alternative proposition, has been agreed to.[302] A motion has been agreed to censuring the Leader of the National Party, then in opposition, for conduct unworthy of a Member.[303] Apart from motions against the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the National Party, a motion of censure of a private Member has been moved on only two occasions. Both motions were agreed to.[304]

Such resolutions, as distinct from a resolution of the House suspending a Member, for example, do not have a substantive effect and are regarded rather as an expression of opinion by the House. A motion in the form of a censure of a Member, such as the Leader of the Opposition, not being a member of the Executive Government, is not consistent with the parliamentary convention that the traditional purpose of a vote of censure is to question or bring to account a Minister’s responsibility to the House. Furthermore, given the relative strength of the parties in the House, and the strength of party loyalties, in ordinary circumstances it could be expected that a motion or amendment expressing censure of an opposition leader or another opposition Member would be agreed to, perhaps regardless of the circumstances or the merits of the arguments or allegations. It is acknowledged, however, that ultimately the House may hold any Member accountable for his or her actions.[305]

The House has agreed to a motion condemning a private Senator, inter alia, for ‘commission of an act, the disclosure of … [a person’s] tax file number, which would have been a crime if done outside the Parliament’.[306] A private Senator has also been censured by the House for ‘failing to observe reasonable standards of behaviour … ’.[307]

Whilst there are precedents for amendments expressing censure of private Members,[308] they may be considered bad precedents and undesirable, as they do not constitute good practice in terms of the principle that the conduct of a Member may only be challenged by way of a substantive motion.[309]

See also ‘Combined motions’ at page 340 for discussion of a motion to suspend standing orders to condemn a Member.

Censure of the Opposition

The House has agreed to a motion censuring the Opposition collectively,[310] and on other occasions motions of censure directed at the Prime Minister or another Minister have been amended to become motions censuring,[311] expressing concern over,[312] or condemning[313] the Opposition. Again, such motions and amendments are not consistent with the traditional parliamentary convention noted in the preceding section, and the passage of a motion censuring the Opposition has no substantive effect. On one occasion a notice of motion for the purpose of moving that an Address be presented to the Governor-General informing him that the Opposition invited the censure of the House was ruled out of order on the ground that it was frivolous (see page 298).