How the Aussies dump unwanted party leaders

In a parliamentary democracy, there’s always drama associated with changing a party leader — especially one who doesn’t want to leave. In Canada, we make the process as traumatic as possible. When the leader finally goes, it can take months, even years, to put a new one in place — with all the turmoil of leadership campaigns, fights over balloting, and thousands gathering in a convention hall or hockey arena to sanctify the new saviour of the party.

In Britain and Australia, they do things differently. It might take some time to oust the unwanted leader, but the new one takes charge virtually the same day. In Australia, the current governing Liberal Party (which is centre-right) went through a leadership change last September. The process was so painless and efficient, one wonders why political parties in Canada don’t follow suit.

In mid-September of 2015, opinion polls had the Liberal Party running consistently behind the opposition Labor Party in the people’s affections. So on September 9, the party’s elected members moved a “spill motion” against their leader Tony Abbott, then the Prime Minister.

Under Liberal Party rules, any Liberal member of parliament or senator (in Australia the Senate is an elected body) can propose a motion to spill (i.e. remove) the party’s leadership. The leader has some discretion over whether to call a vote and whether it is to be conducted by a show of hands or a secret ballot (historically votes have been secret). But once a motion is voted on and a majority supports it, the leadership automatically becomes vacant. What follows, however, is not a convoluted process of selecting an “interim” leader and scheduling a far-distant vote on who the next leader will be. Instead, at the same meeting which “spills” the leader, a vote is held to select a new leader among the candidates who present themselves. If there are more than two candidates, successive votes are held and lower-placed candidates are eliminated until one individual receives a majority of the votes. All on the same day at the same meeting in the same room.

In September 2015, the Liberal Party held two votes to spill its leader Tony Abbott.  The first was on September 9 and was defeated 61 to 39.  But that was not where matters ended. On September 14, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull resigned from the cabinet, announced that he would challenge Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, and requested a second ballot.  Abbott agreed, the vote was taken, and Turnbull defeated Abbott by 54 to 44 — becoming the new leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister.

As it happens, the change of leadership delivered what Turnbull and his supporters had hoped for: a large boost in public support for their party which has been running consistently ahead of Labour in the opinion polls ever since. So Turnbull is riding high right now. But in the back of his mind will be the knowledge that he was Liberal Party leader once before, when it was in opposition, and lost the job — as a result of a spill motion. On 1 December 2009, a spill motion was carried and Turnbull was defeated by a rival in the subsequent leadership vote by 42 to 41. The rival was Tony Abbott.


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