Summary: The focus of this paper is on free or conscience votes in the NSW Parliament between 1981 and 2013. As such, its purpose is to add to the small but growing body of literature in this field.
A full list of free votes between 1981 and 2013 is set out at Appendix A, which includes all those votes identified occurring in one or both Houses and permitted by one or more of the major parties.
Free votes open up a broad range of issues relevant to parliamentary politics. They differ from other votes in Parliament in terms of the type of issues concerned, involving as they do some of “the most divisive issues of the day”, often attracting “intense lobbying”. In Australia, in particular, where party control is enforced over individual MPs to an unusual extent, where all other votes are “subject to an implicit three-line whip”, free votes can offer rare insights into their personal values and thinking and may even present opportunities for inter-party allegiances, albeit short-lived.
The terms “free vote” and “conscience vote” are often used interchangeably, as indeed they are at certain points in this paper. However, the term “free vote” is preferred for the reason that it less pejorative than “conscience vote”, which suggests that members do not vote according to their conscience as a rule.
Free votes occur when political parties decide that their members are free to vote as they choose on a particular matter, rather than along party lines.