A crossbencher is an independent or minor party member of some legislatures, such as the British House of Lords and the Parliament of Australia. They take their name from the crossbenches, between and perpendicular to the government and opposition benches, where crossbenchers sit in the chamber.
Crossbench members of the British House of Lords are not aligned to any particular party. Until 2009, these included the Law Lords appointed under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876. In addition, former Speakers of the House of Commons (such as Lord Martin of Springburn and Baroness Boothroyd) and former Lord Speakers of the House of Lords (such as Baroness Hayman and Baroness D'Souza), who by convention are not aligned with any party, also sit as crossbenchers. There are also some non-affiliated members of the House of Lords who are not part of the crossbencher group; this includes some officers, such as the Lord Speaker, and others who are associated with a party but have had the whip withdrawn. Although non-affiliated members, and members of small parties, sometimes physically sit on the crossbenches, they are not members of the crossbench parliamentary group.
An "increasing number" of crossbenchers have been created peers for non-political reasons. Since its establishment in May 2000, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has nominated a total of 67 non-party-political life peers who joined the House of Lords as crossbenchers.
There are currently 182 crossbenchers, composing approximately 23% of the sitting members in the House of Lords and making them the third largest parliamentary group after the Conservative and Labour parties. From April 2007 to 2009, the number of crossbenchers was higher than the number of Conservatives in the Lords for the first time.
Although the Lords Spiritual (archbishops and senior bishops of the Church of England) also have no party affiliation, they are not considered crossbenchers and do not sit on the crossbenches, their seats being on the Government side of the Lords Chamber.
Parties supporting a minority government in a confidence and supply agreement in the House of Commons, such as the Democratic Unionist Party in the current Parliament, are not considered crossbenchers. Instead, along with all other non-governing parties, they are considered part of the opposition and sit on the opposition benches.
The crossbenchers do not take a collective position on issues, and so have no whips; however, they do elect from among themselves a convenor for administrative purposes, and to keep them up to date with the business of the House. The current convenor is David Hope, Baron Hope of Craighead, who took the office in September 2015. While convenors are not part of the "usual channels" (i.e. the party whips who decide the business of the House), they have been included in their discussions in recent years.
The following have served as Convenor of the Crossbenchers:
- 1968–1974: The Lord Strang
- 1974–1995: The Baroness Hylton-Foster
- 1995–1999: The Lord Weatherill (Alternate Convenor 1993–1995)
- 1999–2004: The Lord Craig of Radley
- 2004–2007: The Lord Williamson of Horton
- 2007–2011: The Baroness D'Souza
- 2011–2015: The Lord Laming
- 2015–present: The Lord Hope of Craighead
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The term "crossbencher" is generally not used for the Canadian Parliament or any of the provincial or territorial legislatures. Instead, any party that is not the governing party is an opposition party, with the largest of these designated the official opposition (and their leader is designated Leader of the Opposition). Opposition parties other than the official opposition are typically called third parties, a term derived from American politics. Third parties and independents sit on the opposition side of the chamber, even if they are supporting a minority government, unless they are part of a coalition government.
Parties require a certain number of seats to have official party status for procedural purposes (the minimum is 12 seats for the federal House of Commons). Although parties without official party status behave like political parties, their members are treated as individual members.
Third parties have been common in Canadian legislatures since the 1920s. In particular, legislatures often contain members of an ideological party, such as a labour-based party (Progressive Party, Labour Party, CCF, NDP) or a right-wing party (Socreds, Reform Party, Wildrose Party).
Beginning in 2016, the Independent Senators Group was formed in the Senate of Canada, fulfilling a similar purpose as crossbenchers. The ISG was created partly as a response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to appoint more non-partisan Senators. Similar to crossbenchers in the UK, the group has chosen a leader, and does not use a whipping system. In December 2016 the Senate began to officially recognise the group and provide it with funding. Given the relative newness of the group, exactly how it operates when compared to crossbenchers in the UK or elsewhere remains to be seen.
The term refers to both independent and minor party members in the Federal Parliament of Australia as well as the Parliaments of the Australian states and territories. Unlike the United Kingdom, in Australia the term is applied to those parties and independents in both the lower and upper houses of parliament, who sit on the crossbench.
The last few federal elections have seen an increase in the size and power of the crossbench in both houses of Parliament. The Australian Parliament as elected at the 2010 election was the first hung parliament in the House of Representatives since the election of 1940, with the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition winning 72 seats each of 150 total. Six crossbenchers held the balance of power: Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor declared their support for Labor on confidence and supply, independent MP Bob Katter and National Party of Western Australia MP Tony Crook declared their support for the Coalition on confidence and supply. The resulting 76–74 margin entitled Labor to form a minority government.
The Australian Senate, which uses the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation to elect its 76-seat chamber, frequently has a number of Senators on the crossbench that the governing party has to negotiate with to get legislation passed. The 2 July 2016 double dissolution election, for example resulted in a chamber with the Liberal/National Coalition having 30 seats, the Australian Labor Party with 26 seats, the Greens with 9 seats, One Nation with 4 seats and the Nick Xenophon Team with 3 seats. The other 4 seats were each won by Derryn Hinch, the Liberal Democratic Party, Family First, and Jacqui Lambie. The number of crossbenchers increased by two to a record 20. The Liberal/National Coalition government required at least nine additional votes to reach a Senate majority.
Generally speaking, Senators broadly aligned with the government, such as those affiliated with the Australian Conservatives, One Nation, the Liberal Democratic Party, and Derryn Hinch, sit on the same side of the crossbench as the government benches, while those more aligned with the opposition, such as the Greens, sit on the same side of the crossbench as the opposition benches. This tends not to be the case in the House of Representatives, both due to the different electoral system, which means fewer crossbenchers are elected, and the fact that the official government and opposition frontbenches extend across the inner rim of the entire hemicycle.
In the New Zealand House of Representatives, MPs from parties that are not openly aligned with either the government or the official opposition (such as those belonging to New Zealand First between 2011 until 2017) are sometimes referred to as crossbenchers.
Unlike in Britain, Canada and Australia, MPs from minor parties that support the government in confidence and supply agreements are regarded as part of the government and sit on the government benches, often receiving official roles as ministers outside the cabinet or as parliamentary under-secretaries. From 2008 to 2017, ACT New Zealand, Māori Party and United Future MPs supported the minority National Party government. These MPs were not considered to be crossbenchers or part of the opposition, as they were represented within the government.
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