©2018 by polity.

  • Alex Wok

Leadership Spills


The most recent Liberal party leadership turmoil has seen Scott Morrison replace Malcolm Turnbull as the Prime Minister of Australia. With this change, Australia has seen seven of its 30 Prime Minister’s take office in the past 11 years (if you count Kevin Rudd twice!). As Australia is a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is determined not by a popular vote but by a vote of members of parliament (MPs) from within their own party. The Prime Minister remains in their position only as long as they hold the confidence of their parliamentary colleagues. This system allows MPs to express when they no longer have confidence in the Prime Minister being the most capable leader of the party. Moreover, Australia is unique in that it has a relatively small parliament when compared to other countries, with only 150 members in the lower house compared with, fore instance, Canada (which has 338) and the UK (which has 650), meaning it is relatively easier to mobilise consensus to create a spill.

Due to the almost instant pace at which information is travelling and its universal accessibility, this has meant that parliamentarians are forced to be more reactive to public opinion, thus forcing their hand to utilise these available powers. After also seeing two controversial changes in Prime Minister within a similar period between 2007 and 2013, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) subsequently implemented constitutional rules meaning any leadership change of the ALP must also be put to a popular vote amongst its members. This new rule now requires a vote to spill the leadership to be supported by 60% of the caucus of MPs and Senators while in opposition, with this rising to 75% if the party is in government. However, while once embedded in the party’s constitution this rule is now only a caucus rule, meaning it would only require a simple majority of caucus to nullify it.

These changes from the ALP have prompted some to ask whether more stringent restrictions on the exercise of leadership spills should be implemented, and whether such a choice should even be given to the parties themselves. Overseas in the UK, the Conservatives have a special rule: if the Prime Minister wins a vote of confidence, then future leadership ballots are banned for a year. Would such a system be needed in Australia?


Are the current powers to decide who is prime minister given to MPs misplaced in modern times?

read more:

  1. The Guardian, ‘Canberra coup culture must change, says Liberal president Nick Greiner’.

  2. The West Australian, ‘Mark Riley: Ride of the crusading knights of the Liberal Party Right’.

  3. East Asia Forum, ‘The impact of Australia’s political instability


  5. The Guardian, 'Liberal MP Julia Banks to quit parliament, citing 'bullying and intimidation'; The Sydney Morning Herald, 'The most politically turbulent week in half a century'

  6. The Conversation, 'The economics of Australia’s too-common leadership spills'

  7. ABC News, 'Leadership spills: We now realise this is just the Westminster system in action'; The Australian, ‘Turnbull, not News nor 2GB, was the author of his demise’.

  8. Australian Financial Review, 'Party president Nick Greiner: Liberals should match Labor's leadership rules'

  9. The Mandarin, 'Is it time for ministerial KPIs and performance management? Ian Chubb thinks so'; The Sydney Morning Herald, 'John Howard rejects calls to change Liberal Party rules after spill'

  10. Parliament of Australia, 'About Parliament: Cabinet confidentiality'