The government has not lost a vote like this since 1929. This is what it means
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The government has not lost a vote like this since 1929. This is what it means

The Morrison government is a strong chance of being defeated in a vote in the House of Representatives, as a powerful crossbench joins Labor in an attempt to deliver the first such loss in almost 90 years.

The historic defeat on legislation is "not necessarily fatal" for the government, but it raises serious questions about the Coalition's tenure.

Dr Kerryn Phelps MP, Andrew Wilkie MP, Adam Bandt MP, Senator Nick McKim, Senator Tim Storer and Senator Derryn Hinch speak to the media about discuss a new crossbench bill that would require the urgent evacuation to Australia of any asylum

Dr Kerryn Phelps MP, Andrew Wilkie MP, Adam Bandt MP, Senator Nick McKim, Senator Tim Storer and Senator Derryn Hinch speak to the media about discuss a new crossbench bill that would require the urgent evacuation to Australia of any asylum Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

In our Federation's history, governments have almost always resigned after humiliating legislative defeats like this one - but don't expect a snap election to be called Thursday afternoon.

What will happen on Thursday?

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Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers across both houses have allied to hasten medical treatment for refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

New amendments would force ministers to transfer unwell refugees to Australia where medical advice suggests they do.

An attempt by Wentworth member Kerryn Phelps to debate the matter failed earlier in the week.

But there was one last route the opposition could try. When the Senate passes a bill, it must be dealt with by the House of Representatives.

So crossbenchers, with Labor and the Greens' support, went to the Senate first, where the numbers are more favourable - and it's set to pass.

Unless the government pulls a procedural manouevre that delays the bill, we are likely to have a final vote on it in the House of Representatives by mid-afternoon.

Has this happened before?

There are three types of vote losses a sitting government can face.

One type is government-toppling: if a vote stops the government spending its own money, or explicitly suggests legislators have no confidence in it, the governor-general will call an election.

Another type is procedural: if a government loses a vote on whether to debate a bill, or whether to suspend standing orders. The loss is often embarrassing, but does not significantly question the government's core capacity to govern.

The vote on Thursday, though, falls into a little-explored third type of vote loss: where the government fails on a substantive piece of legislation. It is more significant than a procedural loss, but less consequential than a vote of no confidence.

The last time this happened was in 1929, when prime minister Stanley Bruce introduced a plan to give the government more power over industrial disputes.

Mr Bruce's challengers wanted that plan to go to a referendum or general election, and their suggestion won majority support, 35 votes to 34.

Most other times governments have lost substantial votes - in 1904 (twice), 1905, 1908, 1909, 1931 and 1941 - they have been government-toppling votes on confidence or appropriations. After those votes, each government resigned.

But the Morrison government can draw some faith from history. In 1918 prime minister Billy Hughes' proposal for a second conscription plebiscite failed, and when the governor-general was asked whether Mr Hughes should resign, he instead suggested Mr Hughes just form another ministry.

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What happens next?

All things considered, a snap federal election will not be called due to Thursday's vote.

While the lower house crossbenchers may vote in favour of the asylum seeker bill on Thursday, the likelihood that they would vote together to support any motion of no confidence in the Morrison government is low, meaning the Coalition is expected to be able to continue to make crucial governing decisions.

The optics of a substantial loss in the lower house, however, aren't great for the Morrison government. Thursday afternoon's vote would leave a sour taste in voters' mouths ahead of the NSW election in March and a federal election soon after.

As Parliament completes its final day of the year, Mr Morrison is in an unenviable position.

Max is a trainee for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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