gay marriage conscience vote

Liberal MPs Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmermann and Trevor Evans

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is holding firm on the Liberal Party’s election promise to put forward a plebiscite regarding same-sex marriage. However, pro-marriage equality Liberals such Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Dean Smith and Warren Entsch are pushing for the plebiscite to be dumped in favour of a conscience vote in Parliament. The issue is likely to come to a head at today’s Liberal party room meeting. And, as Mark Kenny has pointed out, the issue could affect the stability of the Turnbull administration itself, as the loss of a vote on marriage reform could potentially equate to a loss of confidence for the Prime Minister.

Turnbull has three options: try for a plebiscite once again in the Senate, conduct a plebiscite via post, or allow an open vote in Parliament on a marriage equality bill. While a plebiscite would cost approximately $160 million, allowing a conscience vote would send the conservative undead within the Liberal Party into paroxysms of rage, as the move would herald the breaking of an election promise (nothing new) and actually pave the way for marriage equality. As we know, conscience votes allow MPs to vote according to their own will, rather than simply along the party line.

So how many conscience votes have there been in Australian political history? And how often do they succeed in Parliament?

How many conscience votes have there been altogether ?

Since 1950, there have been 33 conscience votes in Parliament, with 23 passed and 10 lapsed. This means conscience votes (since 1950) have historically recorded a success rate of nearly 70%. By contrast, there have been 44 referendums held since 1901, with only eight of them passing, making for a success rate of just over 18%. Out of the 33 conscience votes in Australia, 21 were put forward under Liberal governments, with just 12 coming under Labor governments. Gough Whitlam (Labor) scores the highest with eight, closely followed by John Gorton (Liberal) with six, and Robert Menzies (Liberal) and John Howard (Liberal) with five each.Both Harold Holt (Liberal) and Paul Keating (Labor) got through their terms without putting any conscience votes forward. 

The most recent conscience vote took place in 2012, when ALP backbencher Stephen Jones put forward a bill that would have legalised gay marriage. Despite the ALP allowing a conscience vote on the issue, the bill was emphatically shut down in Parliament, with the numbers in the House of Reps 42 in favour to 98 against, and 26 in favour and 41 against in the Senate

What are the most significant ones in Australian history?

Conscience votes have allowed the passing of bills and motions that abolished the death penalty, organised a uniform set of marriage laws, removed legal barriers for divorce, decriminalised gay sex, banned euthanasia in certain parts of the country, banned human cloning and shifted the responsibility to approve abortion drug RU486.

However, sometimes change has been hard to achieve. For instance, it took three attempts to abolish the death penalty, while the quest to designate a location for the new Parliament House took a staggering five conscience votes.

Below is a list of the most significant and successful conscience votes:

Marriage Bill 1961

The bill sought to introduce uniform marriage laws across Australia.

Death Penalty Abolition Bill 1973


Motion: Homosexual acts 1973

“That in the opinion of this House homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should not be subject to the criminal law.” — House of Representatives

Family Law Bill 1974

The bill removed the existing grounds for divorce such as adultery, cruelty and desertion and instead provided that there would be one ground of divorce — the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

Sex Discrimination Bill 1983

The purpose of the bill was to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy.

Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996

The purpose of the bill was to prevent the NT, the ACT and Norfolk Island from passing certain laws permitting euthanasia.

Prohibition of Human Cloning Bill 2002 & Research Involving Embryos Bill 2002

The purpose of the original bill (which was split in two) was to ban human cloning and other “unacceptable practices” associated with reproductive technology, and to regulate research involving human embryos.

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

The bill removed responsibility for approval of RU486 from the minister for health and ageing and passed it on to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

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Peter Fray
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