The House of Representatives

Page 6 – The Opposition

Testing the government

The Opposition uses a variety of tactics to hold the government to account. In the past, slowing down or obstructing business was common practice. Sometimes the Opposition, as a group, simply walked out of the chamber so there would be no quorum, and a vote could not be taken.

Before the 1930s, the Opposition could bring the House to a standstill just by talking on and on. This was known as stonewalling or filibustering, which involved using the standing orders or speaking so long in a debate that business ground to a halt. Stonewallers had to be organised, and they would speak in shifts to keep a debate going, sometimes for several days. Some speeches were downright silly. For instance, Members of Parliament (MPs) would talk about their favourite hobbies or name all the people in their electorate. One MP spoke for over 24 hours during a stonewall in 1876 that went on for four days. MPs would bring blankets and pillows into the House so that they could snooze in comfort. Stonewalling did not disappear until 1936 when the Labour government introduced the closure, which was moving that a debate be terminated.

Bringing down the House

Some of the most dramatic votes in the history of the House have been no-confidence motions. These were moved by the Opposition to test the government's majority or the confidence of the House. Governments could be toppled by these divisions.

One of the most famous no-confidence votes occurred in 1912 when a division called by the Reform Party led to the defeat of the Liberals. One Liberal MP, John Millar, who voted against the government crawled out of his sick bed and entered the chamber wearing his dressing gown and pyjamas. Members of his own party shouted 'traitor' at him as he voted against them. The Opposition formed into a line behind Reform leader William Massey, and they marched jubilantly into Bellamy's where their victory celebrations continued into the following morning.

Down the hatch

In 1872 William Fox's government fell after its plan to secure the vote of MP Edward Jerningham Wakefield failed dismally. Wakefield was a notorious drunkard, and it was thought that by locking him in a room until the division was ready to be taken he would stay sober and vote with the government. When the Opposition heard of this, one of its members lowered an opened bottle of whiskey down the chimney to Wakefield. The division bells rang, and a government MP rushed to get Wakefield, only to find that he had drunk himself silly. The government member's next plan also failed. He plied Wakefield with more alcohol, but to no avail: Wakefield voted to throw out the government.

Asking questions

Question time is a chance for MPs to ask questions of ministers, although they may not always get the answers they want. Written notice would be given of questions to be answered. Government MPs would normally ask straightforward questions, but those in Opposition could ask difficult questions that put the government on the spot.

Once parties formed from the 1890s onwards, question time became very popular with the public who went to Parliament to see MPs battle it out in words in the chamber. Two hours was put aside for questions on Wednesdays. Then in 1962, 30 minutes of oral, as opposed to written, questions began each sitting, with supplementary questions being asked at the discretion of the Speaker. Question time kept getting longer: 40 minutes in 1974, 45 in 1985 and then about an hour in 1996 when a greater number of questions requiring an immediate answer could be asked.

How to cite this page

'The Opposition', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Jul-2014