Free votes in the Commonwealth Parliament 1950-2021: a quick guide

21 May 2021

PDF version [336 KB]

Dr Michael Sloane 
Politics and Public Administration Section

 

This quick guide contains an updated list of free votes granted by either of the two major parties—the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia—in the Commonwealth Parliament between 1950 and 2021. A free vote occurs when one or more parties allow their members to vote according to their own judgment, rather than requiring them to vote in accordance with party policy. Free votes are often granted on contested moral or ethical issues—for example, abortion, capital punishment, marriage regulation and emerging medical technologies. Free votes granted on such issues are often referred to as ‘conscience votes’ (although the terms are often used interchangeably in the media). Free votes have also been granted on issues concerning the administration of the Parliament.

Although many free votes have been granted on contested moral or ethical issues, there have also been many instances of parties requiring their members to vote in accordance with existing policies on such matters. For example, there are instances listed below where ALP members voted in accordance with established party policy on legislation concerning the death penalty, family law and sex discrimination, while Liberal Party members were granted a conscience vote on the same matters.

The great majority of the free votes listed below were explicitly identified as such by participants in parliamentary debate. However, the list also includes several instances where a vote was not explicitly declared to be a free vote by one or both of the major parties but it nevertheless appears from the voting record and the manner in which a party has dealt with a particular issue in the past that its members were not bound to vote according to a party policy. In this context, it is significant that party discipline is enforced differently in the two major parties—ALP members are formally bound by a pledge to support the decisions of the Caucus and may be expelled if they do not do so, whereas the Liberal Party does not require such a formal pledge and a more complex compromise between party discipline and the autonomy of individual parliamentarians exists.[1]

The information presented below in Table 3 provides an update of the information presented in Appendix 3 of D McKeown and R Lundie, Conscience votes during the Howard Government 1996–‍2007.

Other Parliamentary Library publications on this topic include:

Tables 1 and 2 below provide summary information for bills and motions respectively, and Table 3 provides detailed information about the bills and motions.

Table 1: Bills subject to a free vote in the Commonwealth Parliament since 1950[2]

 

Number of bills introduced

Bills passed by original House

Bills passed by both Houses

Private senators’ bills

9

6

3

Private members’ bills

5

2

2

Government bills introduced in the Senate

4

4

4

Government bills introduced in the House of Representatives

7

6

5

Total

25

18

14

Table 2: Motions subject to a free vote in the Commonwealth Parliament since 1950[3]

 

Motions moved in both Houses

Motions moved in the House of Representatives

Motions agreed to by the House of Representatives

Motions moved in the Senate

Motions agreed to by the Senate

General business

9

5

4

4

0

Government business

9

7

7

2

2

Total

18

12

11

6

2

 

Abbreviations

AD             Australian Democrats

ALP            Australian Labor Party

DHJP          Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party

GRN           Australian Greens

IND            Independent

KAP            Katter’s Australia Party

LDP            Liberal Democratic Party

LIB             Liberal Party of Australia

NCP           National Country Party

NP              The Nationals

NPA           National Party of Australia

NXT           Nick Xenophon Team

2R              second reading

3R              third reading[4]

 


Table 3: Free votes in the Commonwealth Parliament 1950–2021

Issue

Date bill introduced or motion moved

Category

Sponsor(s)

Major parties granting free votes

Outcome

Matrimonial Bill 1957

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 11.4.1957

Private member’s bill

Percy Joske (LIB, Balaclava, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
2R agreed to but not considered further

Parliamentary Allowances Bill 1959

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 14.4.1959

Government bill

Robert Menzies (LIB, Kooyong, Vic.), Prime Minister

LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 16.4.1959

Senate
2R and 3R agreed to 21.4.1959

Matrimonial Causes Bill 1959

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 14.5.1959

Government bill

Garfield Barwick (LIB, Parramatta, NSW), Attorney-General

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 17.11.1959
3R agreed to 19.11.1959

Senate
2R agreed to 26.11.1959
3R agreed to 28.11.1959

Marriage Bill 1961

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 21.3.1961

Note: this bill was originally introduced (19.5.1960) as the Marriage Bill 1960 before being withdrawn to incorporate amendments.

Government bill

Garfield Barwick (LIB, Parramatta, NSW), Attorney-General

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 21.3.1961
3R agreed to 22.3.1961

Senate
2R agreed to 18.4.1961
3R agreed to 19.4.1961

Standing Orders Committee—Report—Amendments to Standing Orders

Motion that the report be adopted and standing orders be amended as recommended by the committee moved in the House of Representatives 31.3.1965

Motion

Harold Holt (LIB, Higgins, Vic.), Treasurer

LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 31.3.1965

Fluoridation of Canberra water supply—proposed referendum

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 18.3.1965

Motion (general business)

Jim Killen (LIB, Moreton, Qld)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 18.3.1965

Death Penalty Abolition Bill 1968

Bill introduced in the Senate 21.3.1968

Private senator’s bill

Lionel Murphy (ALP, NSW), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Gough Whitlam (ALP, Werriwa, NSW), Leader of the Opposition

LIB (in the Senate)

Senate
2R and 3R agreed to 4.6.1968

House of Representatives
2R moved but not considered further 5.6.1968

New and Permanent Parliament House Site

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 15.8.1968

Motion

John Gorton (LIB, Higgins, Vic.), Prime Minister

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion amended and agreed to 17.10.1968

Senate
Senate agreed to a motion concurring with the House of Representatives resolution, without prejudice to its 22.8.1968 resolution (see entry below) 26.11.1968

New and Permanent Parliament House Site

Motion moved in the Senate 20.8.1968

Motion

Kenneth Anderson (LIB, NSW), Minister for Supply

ALP and LIB

Senate
Motion amended and agreed to 22.8.1968

Report of the Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House

Motion that the report be adopted moved in the House of Representatives 13.5.1969

Motion

Peter Nixon (NPA, Gippsland, Vic.), Minister for the Interior

Kenneth Anderson (LIB, NSW), Minister for Supply

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 14.5.1969

Senate
For complex procedural reasons, the Senate considered the recommendations of the report during a debate on a motion to rescind an earlier resolution that the new and permanent Parliament House be situated at Capital Hill (see entry above). The Senate did not agree to rescind the earlier resolution, thereby reaffirming its opinion on the proposed site of the new and permanent Parliament House 27.5.1969

Standing Orders Committee—Report

Motion that the report be adopted and standing orders be amended as recommended by the committee moved in the House of Representatives 10.6.1970

Motion

Reginald Swartz (LIB, Darling Downs, Qld), Leader of the House and Minister for National Development

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 10.6.1970

Death Penalty Abolition Bill 1970

Bill introduced in the Senate 22.4.1970

Private senator’s bill

Lionel Murphy (ALP, NSW), Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

LIB

Senate
2R, amendments and 3R agreed to 9.3.1972

House of Representatives
2R debate commenced 21.3.1972 but did not proceed further

House of Representatives (Quorum of Members Bill) 1970

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 1.9.1970

Government bill

Billy Snedden (LIB, Bruce, Vic.), Minister for Labour and National Service

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
2R, amendment and 3R agreed to 4.9.1970

Senate
Bill introduced 21.10.1970 but did not proceed further

Standing Orders Committee—Report

Motion that the report be adopted and standing orders be amended as recommended by the committee moved in the House of Representatives 23.8.1971

Motion

Reginald Swartz (LIB, Darling Downs, Qld), Leader of the House and Minister for National Development

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 26.8.1971

Standing Orders Committee—Report

Motion to agree to recommendations, endorse decisions and adopt proposed changes to standing orders contained in the report moved in the House of Representatives 13.4.1972

Motion

Reginald Swartz (LIB, Darling Downs, Qld), Leader of the House and Minister for National Development

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion divided, with parts agreed to 13.4.1972, 18.4.1972 and 19.4.1972.

New and Permanent Parliament House

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 23.8.1973

Motion (general business)

Gordon Scholes (ALP, Corio, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 24.10.1973

Senate
The Senate did not concur in the House resolution and agreed to an alternative resolution 15.11.1973.

Parliament Bill 1973

Bill introduced in the Senate 8.11.1973

Private senator’s bill

Reg Wright (LIB, Tas.)

ALP and LIB

Senate
2R agreed to 22.11.1973
Amendments and 3R agreed to 29.11.1973

House of Representatives
Introduced 4.12.1973 but not considered further

Medical Practice Clarification Bill 1973

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 10.5.1973

Private member’s bill

David McKenzie (ALP, Diamond Valley, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Bill defeated at the 2R stage 10.5.1973

Sexual relationships—social, educational and legal aspects—proposed Royal Commission

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 13.9.1973

Motion (general business)

Motion moved by Race Mathews (ALP, Casey, Vic.), co-sponsored by Don Chipp (LIB, Hotham, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Amended motion agreed to 13.9.1973

Death Penalty Abolition Bill 1973

Bill introduced in the Senate 1.3.1973

Government bill

Lionel Murphy (ALP, NSW), Attorney-General and Minister for Customs and Excise

LIB

Bill passed both Houses

Senate
2R agreed to 8.5.1973
3R agreed to 28.8.1973

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 13.9.1973

Homosexual acts and the criminal law

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 18.10.1973

Motion (general business)

Motion moved by John Gorton (LIB, Higgins, Vic.) and seconded by Moss Cass (ALP, Maribyrnong, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 18.10.1973

Parliament Bill 1974

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 26.9.1974

Private member’s bill

Keith Johnson (ALP, Burke, NSW) in the House of Representatives

Arthur Poyser (ALP, Vic.) in the Senate

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 26.9.1974
3R agreed to 17.10.1974
Senate amendments agreed to 5.12.1974

Senate
2R, amendments and 3R agreed to 24.10.1974

Family Law Bill 1974

 

Bill originally introduced in the Senate 13.12.1973

Bill re-introduced 2.4.1974 (following prorogation) and 1.8.1974 (following dissolution)

Government bill

Lionel Murphy (ALP, NSW), Attorney-General and Minister for Customs and Excise

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses

Senate
2R agreed to 19.11.1974
3R agreed to 27.11.1974
House amendments agreed to 29.5.1975

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 9.4.1975
Amendments agreed to 15.5.1975; 20.5.1975 and 21.5.1975
3R agreed to 21.5.1975

Marriage Amendment Bill 1976

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 3.6.1976

Government bill

Bob Ellicott (LIB, Wentworth, NSW), Attorney-General

ALP and, in relation to an amendment, LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R, amendments and 3R agreed to 19.8.1976

Senate
2R and 3R agreed to 10.12.1976

Proposed appointment of a Joint Select Committee to inquire into and report on the provisions and operation of Family Law Act 1975

Motion moved in the Senate 17.8.1978

Motion

Peter Durack (LIB, WA), Attorney-General and Minister for Administrative Services

LIB

(ALP members made conflicting statements on whether the ALP had granted a free vote)

Senate
Resolution of appointment agreed to 17.8.1979
House amendments to resolution agreed to 28.9.1978

House of Representatives
Amended resolution agreed to 21.9.1978

Termination of Pregnancy Ordinance 1978, Australian Capital Territory Ordinance No. 16 of 1978

Motion moved in the Senate 11.10.1978

Disallowance motion

Susan Ryan (ALP, ACT)

ALP and LIB

Senate
Motion negatived 10.11.1978

Termination of pregnancy—medical benefits

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 21.3.1979

Motion (general business)

Stephen Lusher (NCP, Hume, NSW)

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
Amended motion agreed to 22.3.1979

Note: the original motion was in effect defeated as its substance was entirely replaced by an amendment

Family Law Amendment Bill 1983

Introduced in the Senate 1.6.1983

Government bill

Gareth Evans (ALP, Vic.), Attorney-General

LIB

Bill passed both Houses

Senate
2R agreed to 24.8.1983
Amendments agreed to 24.8.1983; 25.8.1983; 6.9.1983; 7.9.1983; 8.9.1983; 6.10.1983; and 7.10.1983
3R agreed to 7.10.1983

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 19.10.1983

Sex Discrimination Bill 1983 (No 2)

Bill introduced in the Senate 29.11.1983

Note: this bill incorporated Government and Opposition amendments to the Sex Discrimination Bill 1983, which was discharged from the Notice Paper 29.11.1983.[5]

 

Government bill

Susan Ryan (ALP, ACT), Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women

LIB

Bill passed both Houses

Senate
2R agreed to 13.12.1983
Amendment and 3R agreed to 16.12.1983

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 5.3.1984
3R agreed to 7.3.1984

Quorum of the House

Motion moved in the House of Representatives 9.12.1987

Motion

Mick Young (ALP, Port Adelaide, SA), Leader of the House

ALP

House of Representatives
Motion agreed to 9.12.1987

Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 9.9.1996

Private member’s bill

Kevin Andrews (LIB, Menzies, Vic.)

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses

House of Representatives
2R agreed to 9.12.96
3R agreed to 9.12.96

Senate
2R agreed to 24.3.97
3R agreed to 24.3.97

Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 27.6.2002

Government bill

John Howard (LIB, Bennelong, NSW), Prime Minister

 

ALP and LIB

Both bills passed both Houses after original bill divided.

House of Representatives
Motion to divide the bill agreed to 29.8.2002

Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002
2R and 3R agreed to 29.8.2002
Senate amendments agreed to 11.12.2002

Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002
2R agreed to 16.9.2002
3R agreed to 25.9.2002
Senate amendments agreed to 11.12.2002

Senate
Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002
2R agreed to 12.11.2002
Amendments agreed to 13.11.2002
3R agreed to 14.11.2002

Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002
2R agreed to 12.11.2002
Amendments and 3R agreed to 5.12.2002

Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for Approval of RU486) Bill 2005

Bill introduced in the Senate 8.12.2005

Private senators’ bill

Fiona Nash (NPA, NSW), Claire Moore (ALP, Qld), Judith Troeth (LIB, Vic.) and Lyn Allision (AD, Vic.)

 

Mal Washer (LIB, Moore, WA) moved the second reading motion in the House of Representatives.

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses.

Senate
2R and 3R agreed to 9.2.2006

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 16.2.2006.

Prohibition of Human Cloning for Reproduction and the Regulation of Human Embryo Research Amendment Bill 2006

Bill introduced in the Senate 19.10.2006

Private senator’s bill

Kay Patterson (LIB, Vic.).

 

Mal Washer (LIB, Moore, WA) moved the second reading motion in the House of Representatives.

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses.

Senate
2R agreed to 7.11.2006
Amendments and 3R agreed to 7.11.2006.

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 6.12.2006.

Marriage Amendment Bill 2012

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 13.2.2012

Private member’s bill

Stephen Jones (ALP, Throsby, NSW)

ALP

House of Representatives
Bill defeated at the 2R stage on 19.9.2012

Marriage Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2012

Bill introduced in the Senate 10.9.2012

Private senators’ bill

Carol Brown (ALP, Tas), Trish Crossin (ALP, NT), Louise Pratt (ALP, WA) and Gavin Marshall (ALP, Vic.)

ALP

Senate
Bill defeated at the 2R stage on 20.9.2012.

Marriage Act Amendment (Recognition of Foreign Marriages for Same-Sex Couples) Bill 2013

Bill introduced in the Senate 16.5.2013

Private senator’s bill

Sarah Hanson-Young (GRN, SA)

ALP

Senate
Bill defeated at the 2R stage 20.6.2013.

Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017

Bill introduced in the Senate 15.11.2017

Private senators’ bill

Dean Smith (LIB, SA) with co-sponsors senators Linda Reynolds (LIB, WA), Penny Wong (ALP, SA), Louise Pratt (ALP, WA), Richard Di Natale (GRN, Vic.), Janet Rice (GRN, Vic.), Skye Kakoschke-Moore (NXT, SA), Derryn Hinch (DHJP, Vic.) and Jane Hume (LIB, Vic.)

 

Warren Entsch (LIB, Leichhardt, Qld) moved the second reading motion in the House of Representatives.

ALP and LIB

Bill passed both Houses.

Senate
2R and amendments agreed to 28.11.2017
3R agreed to 29.11.2017

House of Representatives
2R and 3R agreed to 7.12.2017

New South Wales—Abortion Clinics—Exclusion Zones

Motion moved in the Senate 25.6.2018

Motion (general business)

Fraser Anning (KAP, Qld)

ALP and LIB

 

Senate
Motion defeated 25.6.2018.

Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015

Bill introduced in the Senate 2.12.2015

Private senator’s bill

David Leyonhjelm (LDP, NSW)

ALP and LIB

Senate
Bill defeated at the 2R stage 18.8.2018.

Queensland—Abortion Laws

Motion moved in the Senate 27.11.2018

Motion (general business)

Fraser Anning (IND, Qld)

ALP and LIB

Senate
Motion defeated (no division) 27.11.2018

Queensland—Abortion Laws

Motion moved in the Senate 4.12.2018

Motion (general business)

Fraser Anning (IND, Qld), Amanda Stoker (LIB, Qld) and Barry O’Sullivan (NP, Qld)

ALP and LIB

Senate
Motion determined as not formal. Proposed suspension of standing orders to allow motion to be moved immediately and determined without amendment or debate defeated.

Mitochondrial Donation Law Reform (Maeve’s Law) Bill 2021

Bill introduced in the House of Representatives 24.3.2021

Government bill

Greg Hunt (LIB, Flinders, Vic.), Minister for Health and Aged Care

ALP and LIB

House of Representatives
2R moved 24.3.2021—bill remains before the House

 


[1].   See discussion in D McKeown and R Lundie, Crossing the floor in the federal parliament 1950–April 2019, Research Paper Series, 2019–20, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 12 March 2020, pp. 5–6.

[2].   The Mitochondrial Donation Law Reform (Maeve’s Law) Bill 2021 is still before the House of Representatives. The Research Involving Embryos and Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 which was divided into two bills following its introduction by the House of Representatives has been counted as one bill in this table.

[3].   Several of the motions included in this table were agreed to and then transmitted to the other chamber for concurrence. This table does not include information on how these motions were dealt with in the second chamber.

[4].   For information on the procedures employed by the two Houses when considering proposed legislation see, The Senate and Legislation, Senate Brief No. 8, Department of the Senate, February 2020 and Making Laws, Infosheet No. 7, Department of the House of Representatives, March 2020.

[5].   The bill as introduced in the Senate is not currently available in an electronic format. The bill as introduced in the House of Representatives 28 February 1984 has been linked to instead.

 

 


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