Crossing the floor
When a member of a parliamentary party votes against their party this is called ‘crossing the floor’. This fact sheet explores the frequency and potential outcomes of crossing the floor.
For a question to be resolved in Parliament, a vote must be taken. Parliamentary parties usually vote as a team, with all party members voting the same way. A member of a parliamentary party who votes against their party in a division is said to have crossed the floor.
Members of parliamentary parties rarely cross the floor because parties expect loyalty from their team members. Crossing the floor publicly demonstrates disagreement within the party. It may be seen to be giving greater preference to the needs of the electorate than the needs of the party. For this reason it may be popular with the people in an electorate but not with the party. A member of parliament who crosses the floor may be considered a traitor to their party.
Members of parliament may be convinced not to cross the floor because they know:
- their party provides support and financial security in return for their loyalty
- their party may impose a ban on crossing the floor
- their action may only make a difference if enough people cross the floor to change the result of a vote. Without the necessary support to change the result, crossing the floor is a controversial act that may not change the outcome of the vote.
If a party or coalition of parties has a slim majority of only one or two votes, it becomes even more important for team members to stick together. Party whips – team managers – are responsible for making sure party members know how to vote and are not planning to cross the floor. In close votes, whips must be on the lookout for how team members vote.
In a conscience vote – called a free vote in Parliament – members of parliament are not required to vote with their party; instead, they can vote according to their own beliefs. A conscience vote is most commonly used to decide ethical issues, such as euthanasia, stem cell research or same-sex marriage. Each parliamentary party decides if its members are allowed a conscience vote on a particular issue.
A conscience vote may be held in order to prevent members of parliament crossing the floor on a controversial issue which may otherwise cause embarrassment to the party, or to allow members of parliament to express their own strongly held beliefs.
Conscience votes are rare. From 1950 to 2007, only 32 votes on bills – proposed laws – and other issues in the Parliament were decided by a conscience vote.
Although crossing the floor rarely occurs now, it has happened more frequently in the past. From 1950 to 2004, 245 members of parliament crossed the floor, representing 24 per cent of all members of parliament who served in this period. Only 12 per cent of divisions were affected by these floor crossings. Senator Reg Wright, from Tasmania, who served from 1950 to 1978, crossed the floor 150 times. This is the most times any member of parliament has done so.
The House of Representatives during a division.
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