Pairing is a parliamentary practice whereby two members of parliament from opposing political parties may agree to abstain where one member is unable to vote, due to other commitments, illness, travel problems, etc. The rationale behind the practice is to maintain the relative distribution of seats in the House so that a party’s strength is based on who was elected, not which MPs are ill that day, or had their flight delayed.
There are slight variations in how pairing is organized in different jurisdictions.
UK House of Commons
As explained on the UK Parliament website,
Pairing is an arrangement where an MP of one party agrees with an MP of an opposing party not to vote in a particular division. This gives both MPs the opportunity not to attend. Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons’ rules. Such arrangements have to be registered with the whips who check that the agreement is stuck to. Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance but pairings can last for months or years.
There have been times, however, where one or more of the parties have refused to participate in pairing arrangements. In December 1996, for example, Labour and the Liberal Democrats discovered that the Tories had been cheating by pairing the same three Conservative MPs with three Labour MPs and three Liberal Democrat MPs. Because of that, the two opposition parties decided to withdraw from all pairing arrangements beginning in January 1997.
It is not clear how long this protest lasted – perhaps only until the end of that parliament since in the 1997 general election, Labour were elected with a huge majority. Pairing is currently practiced by all three of the major parties in the UK House of Commons, but only, as stated above, for votes that aren’t of great importance (one or two line whips).
Canada House of Commons
In the Canadian House of Commons, pairing did not have any official recognition up until 1991. It was considered a private arrangement between Members. In 1991, the Standing Orders were modified to provide for the establishment of a Register of Paired Members, which is kept at the Table. The actual pairing arrangements are arrived at by the party Whips, and Members who will not be participating in any recorded divisions on a given day will have their names entered into the Register by their respective party Whips. These pairings Members are published in the Debates (Hansard) and in the Journals immediately following the entry for any recorded division held on that day.
While this process has formalized pairing to a degree, it still remains largely a private arrangement between the parties, and nothing can be done if a paired Member “forgets” that they were paired and votes. Also, unlike in the UK, the practice in the Canadian House of Commons is that pairings are agreed to on an ad hoc basis, that is, vote by vote. There aren’t any long-term pairing agreements which may last months or years, as occurs in the UK House of Commons. As well, since there is no distinction between one-line, two-line and three-line whips in the Canadian House of Commons, the parties can agree to pairing arrangements on any type of vote, including those of “great political importance”.
Pairing most commonly occurs in the Canadian House of Commons during hung parliaments, when there is a minority government in place. In such instances, the numerical balance between the parties matters far more, and it becomes far more important that the relative voting strengths of the parties is maintained. When one party forms a majority government, pairing is much less common.
Australia House of Representatives
As in the UK and Canada, pairing in the Australian House of Representatives is an unofficial arrangement organized by the party Whips. As in the UK, Members have at times been paired not only on particular questions or one sitting, but sometimes for extended periods. This has even included pairing the Prime Minister with the Leader of the Opposition. As in Canada, pairing is more common when the relative strength of the parties is much closer. Also like Canada, pairing is allowed on crucial votes, and arranging pairings on key votes can be a very protracted and disorderly affair. Parties might also pull out of pairing arrangements, for various reasons:
Pairs have been cancelled by the Government because of the need for an absolute majority to pass a bill to alter the Constitution. The Opposition has cancelled the arrangements for the remainder of the session as a consequence of its view on the manner in which the proceedings of the House were being conducted. (House of Representatives Practice, p. 279)
New Zealand Parliament
Pairing was abolished in the New Zealand Parliament in 1996, following the introduction of new Standing Orders to accommodate the change to the MMP voting system. MPs no longer have to be in the chamber at the time of voting. Parties declare their total votes including the ‘proxy’ votes of those away.