Australia’s Labor Party’s revolving door leadership

In June 2010, Australian Labor Party leader and Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was ousted by his caucus in a leadership challenge won by Rudd’s Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who then became both party leader and Prime Minister. Less than two years later, history appears to be repeating itself, with Rudd now challenging Gillard’s leadership of the party. Gillard announced a ballot for the party’s leadership would take place Monday, February 27. Mr. Rudd’s challenge failed, and Ms. Gillard successfully held off the challenge, winning by 71 votes to 31 votes for Rudd.

If Rudd’s challenge had been successful, he would have replaced Gillard as party leader, but not necessarily as Prime Minister of Australia.

The party leaders in Australia are elected by their party caucus in Parliament, that is, the elected members of that party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In contrast, Canadian political party leaders are chosen by party members. The rules are different for each Canadian political party, but essentially, whenever there is a leadership race, anyone who is a member of that party can run as a candidate for the leadership, even if they aren’t a sitting MP, and anyone who is a member of the party has the opportunity to vote for the party leader at a leadership convention.

There are pros and cons to each approach. In the case of party leadership decided by the party caucus, this strengthens the role of individual MPs and makes the party leader more responsive to his or her MPs. A party leader elected in a more democratic way, by party members, may be able to more easily exert pressure on his or her MPs, rendering MPs more docile and submissive to the party leader, since they can claim support that extends beyond the caucus and to the party as a whole.

Some parties seek to balance both approaches. In 1998, the UK Conservative Party changed its rules for electing a new leader by opening up the process to party members. Prior to 1998, the party leader was chosen by caucus. However, while the actual selection of the party leader is more open, the party caucus still plays an important role. For example, the party caucus can potentially force a leadership review by calling for a vote of confidence in the party leader. To secure a confidence vote, 15% of Conservative Members of Parliament must submit a request for such a vote, in writing, to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee.

If the incumbent Leader wins the support of a simple majority in any such vote, they would remain Leader and no further vote could be called for a period of twelve months from the date of the ballot.  If the Leader were to lose such a vote (again, on a simple majority basis) they must resign, and they may not stand in the leadership election which is then triggered.  As well, it is the party caucus which decides on who the candidates for the leadership will be from among the current sitting MPs. If only one name is put forward, that person becomes the new leader, without party members having any say in the matter. If two names are put forward, then those names are put to the general party membership. However, if three or more names are put forward, a ballot is held within the Parliamentary Party. An exhaustive ballot system is used to select two candidates to go forward to the general membership of the Party.

Getting back to the situation in Australia, these internal Labor Party machinations have prompted some backlash in Australia, with calls for party leaders to be directly elected by the people. Indeed, even this blog has received hits from people based on those search terms. What is not clear is if people are calling for the Prime Minister to be directly elected, or simply for political parties to democratize the way they choose their leader by opening up the process to party members.

I stated at the outset that if Rudd’s leadership challenge was successful, he would replace Julia Gillard as Labor Party leader. One would assume that he would also automatically become Prime Minister, however, this was less immediately clear because of the current hung parliament situation in the Australian House of Representatives.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the Governor-General. This can only happen if there is a vacancy to fill, meaning Julia Gillard would have to resign. If she loses the party leadership, one would assume that she would then resign as Prime Minister as well. As Australian constitutional law expert Anne Twomey explains:

“A lot of people don’t realise that it’s actually a reserve power of the Governor-General; she has some discretion in making this decision, but it’s a discretion confined by some convention.

“The convention says she has to appoint the person who either holds the support of the majority of the Lower House or is most likely to hold that support.”

Professor Twomey says that is where independent MPs will play a key role.

“Can she feel certain that the independents will support Kevin Rudd and that he is the one who holds the support of the majority of the Lower House?” she asked.

“It might be quite difficult for the Governor-General. There’s two ways she could approach it.

“The first would be to ask the independents to come in or give a letter telling her which way they intend to vote – you saw that sort of experience more recently in Tasmania with the hung parliament there.

“Alternatively she could … wait for parliament to sit, and let there be a vote of confidence or no confidence on the floor of the parliament and whatever the House of Representatives chooses then that person [will be appointed] as prime minister.”

“And that would make sure she wasn’t seen to be in any way biased or influencing results – she could leave it to the House to decide.”

Labor currently governs as a minority government with the support of a Green and a few independent MPs. If these independents indicated to the Governor-General that they can’t support Labor with Mr. Rudd as party leader, but would support Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s party, the Governor-General could then ask Mr. Abbott to form the government. Or, if the independents indicate that they can’t support either Rudd or Abbott, they could indicate their preference for an election to be called:

“The independents can’t themselves advise the Governor-General and say ‘hey, call an election’, but what they can do is say ‘we will not give support to the new Labor leader, we will support Tony Abbott to the extent that when he comes into power, the first thing he’s going to do is advise the Governor-General to call an election’.

“So that would be the way of causing an election if the independents thought that was the way to resolve the matter.”

The Governor-General’s third option would be to dissolve parliament, which she can only do on the advise of the Prime Minister, meaning she would have to appoint someone Prime Minister first:

“So if the Governor-General is inclined to think this whole issue that should be resolved by an election, she would be able to appoint Tony Abbott who presumably would not want to be stuck dealing with independents and therefore would advise her to call an election – that would be the way to achieve it.”

The Rudd-Gillard contest presented a special dilemma for the Labor Party:

Gillard is well liked by the majority of her colleagues but disliked by the majority of the voters. Rudd is loathed, indeed hated, by the majority of his colleagues, but is vastly more popular than Gillard among the public.

Because of this, Rudd tried to by-pass caucus support for his leadership by appealing directly to the general public. As Geoff Robinson, a lecturer in politics at Deakin University explains:

“There’s a difference between Julia Gillard’s appeal, very much to the parliamentary party, perhaps the traditions of the Westminster system, whereas Kevin Rudd is mounting a populist, almost an American-style campaign to the mass of the electorate, potentially to Labor supporters.”

Recent polls showed Rudd to be more popular than Gillard, and also more popular than Opposition leader Tony Abbott, but while this may be the case, it is the Labor party caucus which will decide who the party leader will be, and by all accounts, there was great animosity towards Rudd among those he would have to work with day in and day out.

While there is certainly a case to be made for parties such as the Australian Labor Party to democratize how it chooses its leader (and indeed, some are making that case), in a Westminster parliamentary system, party leaders couldn’t be elected directly by the people.  It is not a presidential system. As I have repeatedly stressed in many other posts, voters in Westminster parliamentary systems do not elect governments, much less the Prime Minister, they elect parliaments. It is the party (or group of parties) which can command the confidence of the House which forms the government, and the leader of said party then becomes Prime Minister. A government may, in theory, be removed at any time, if it loses the confidence of the House. If the party in power wishes to change leaders at some point during its mandate, that is the party’s prerogative.

In most instances, e.g., when there is a single-party majority government in place, a change in the party leadership will not affect the governing party’s ability to command the confidence of the House. However, as discussed above, in a minority situation, where the government depends on the support of other parties to stay in power, or in again, perhaps in the case of a majority coalition government such as the one in the UK, a change of party leader might make it more difficult for the government to retain the confidence of the House. The Australian independent MPs might not have supported Labor with Kevin Rudd as leader – they had agreed to support the party led by Julia Gillard. Similarly, if the UK Conservatives ousted David Cameron for another leader, the Liberal Democrats might rethink their position in the coalition.

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