Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a leadership spill attempt last week, although when 40% of your caucus no longer has confidence in you, I’m not sure you can consider that much of a successful outcome. There was great interest in the outcome of the vote on Twitter, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was lovely and removed their region-blocking so that people outside of Australia could follow their news coverage live online.
There have been a number of leadership spill votes in recent years in Australia — some of them successful. When Labor was in power, Julia Gillard successfully ousted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd before the 2010 election. Rudd then tried to return the favour (unsuccessfully) in 2012. Gillard faced another leadership challenge in March 2013, which she won, but she then lost a third leadership challenge to Rudd in June 2013. This plethora of leadership spills prompted many Canadian observers to dub the system “crazy” or “wacky”.
To Canadian eyes, Australian leadership challenges may certainly appear rather odd and probably give the impression that Australian politics are highly unstable. It is true that Australian Prime Ministers serve, on average, much shorter terms than do their Canadian counterparts. In their seminal book, Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies, William Cross and André Blais found that Australian leaders are “significantly more likely” than their Canadian counterparts to “vacate the leadership before their second anniversary on the job” (p. 90). Cross and Blais analyzed a number of variables and concluded that the data demonstrated Australian (and New Zealand) leaders’ tendency “to be gone from the leadership in rather short order if they do not prove themselves quickly. Interviews with party officials make it clear that ‘prove themselves’ is generally a euphemism for showing good results in public opinion polling.” (pp. 91-92) In Canada, they noted, there is an implicit understanding that a new party leader is entitled to contest at least one election; this is simply not the case in Australia.
In Australia, at least until very recently, party caucuses had full control over the selection and removal of the party leader. And not only does the caucus control this process, but a leadership challenge is very easy to initiate. For example, as far as I can determine, for both the Labor and Liberal parties, it takes only one MP to move a motion of no confidence in the leader to trigger a confidence vote. Similarly, the leadership can be declared vacant by having one MP to move a motion challenging for the leadership. From what I understand, (and if I’m a bit off-base, I do hope any Aussie readers out there will correct me), serious leadership challengers — by that I mean cabinet ministers who want to challenge a leader who is the PM — will frequently get a lowly backbencher to challenge for the leadership. This will mean the leadership is officially vacant, and that will pave the way for more serious contenders to declare their candidacy.
While I am in favour of largely limiting leader selection and removal to caucus, I think there are some problems with the Australian model. As Cross and Blais observe, leaders are expected to “prove themselves” quickly, meaning the party expects to see a noticeable improvement in their polling numbers. If that doesn’t happen, the leader can expect a spill vote. This expectation of and need for quick improvements in their polling numbers is in not doubt exacerbated by the three-year term of the Australian House of Representatives. Maybe if their parliamentary term lasted the more usual 4-5 years of the Canadian and UK Houses of Commons, Australian leaders wouldn’t be under so much pressure from their caucus. This short-term focus no doubt also affects what policies a leader will consider implementing. Better, long-term policies will be dropped in favour of short-term, more populist policies that might improve their poll numbers, but fail to adequately address problems facing the country.
In July 2013, Kevin Rudd brought forward new rules governing how Labor Party leaders will be removed and selected. Under the new rules, a leadership ballot aimed at removing a Labor prime minister can only take place if 75% of caucus members sign a petition to that effect — and only on the basis that the leader has “brought the party into disrepute.” When the Labor Party is in opposition, its leader can only be challenged after a petition signed by 60% of caucus members. The Labor leader will now be selected by a ballot of all sitting MPs (the caucus) combined with a ballot of the party’s members, with each ballot having a 50% weighting in determining the final outcome.
Rudd presented the new rules as ensuring a more “democratic” Labor Party, however, it isn’t too cynical to note that the real motivation is simply to make it much harder for the party’s caucus to dump a (in their view) problematic leader. Following last week’s attempt to oust Tony Abbott, some Liberal Party MPs were calling on their party to adopt rules similar to Labor’s.
Other parties in other jurisdictions have a similar approach to leadership change, but with more reasonable rules in place. My favourite model is the one used by the UK Conservative Party. To trigger a confidence vote in the party leader, 12% of sitting MPs have to indicate to the chair of the 1922 Committee (the committee for backbench Tory MPs) that they want a leadership vote. Once that number is reached, a confidence vote is triggered. If the current leader wins the vote, that puts an end to the matter for at least a year. If the leader loses the vote, however, he or she must resign and cannot run again for the leadership. With the UK Tories, only the caucus votes for a new leader until they get down to two candidates. Once there are only two candidates left, then ballots are sent off to members of the party to vote. Of course, if a candidate wins on the first ballot, or if only one candidate comes forward, then the party membership have no say in the matter.
Many in Canada will counterargue that leaving leader selection and removal largely or exclusively in the hands of the party caucus is “undemocratic”. I disagree — it’s exactly what fits best with our form of representative democracy, and it is certainly far more accountable. As former UK Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs and former UK Tory Party leader William Hague once said:
Having the leader elected in parliament strengthens parliament itself. Without the power to change the leader, to elect the prime minister, backbench MPs would have less influence, would have less power over their party leader. All of us who are constituency MPs, trying to represent our constituents and our interests in different parts of the country, know that we are strengthened by having this colossal power at our disposal. In other systems, where party conventions do the choosing of the leader, individual members of Parliament have less influence throughout most of the life of the parliament. And it can very clearly be argued that democracy suffers as a result because the ability of members of Parliament to bring influence to bear is fundamental to democracy.