Plot­ting not what it used to be

The Cairns Post - - VIEWS - James Camp­bell is na­tional pol­i­tics edi­tor

IN 1971 — just as now — Aus­tralia had a Coali­tion gov­ern­ment that was strug­gling in the polls. In these cir­cum­stances you will be un­sur­prised to learn the right wing of the Lib­eral Party’s back­bench was rest­less un­der the lead­er­ship of the left­ish Prime Min­is­ter “Jolly John” Gorton.

In March after the fu­ture PM Mal­colm Fraser — who pre­sented him­self as a right winger in those days — re­signed as de­fence min­is­ter, Gorton called a party room meet­ing at which a con­fi­dence mo­tion in his lead­er­ship was tied 33 votes all.

Declar­ing “Well, that is not a vote of con­fi­dence”, Gorton re­signed on the spot. That was how they rolled back in 1971. In 2018 things are ap­par­ently a bit dif­fer­ent.

On Mon­day night Scott Mor­ri­son called a meet­ing of his par­lia­men­tary party room here in Can­berra that de­cided to change the rules un­der which the Lib­er­als will hence­forth elect their lead­ers.

From the next par­lia­ment — in the un­likely event that the gov­ern­ment is re­turned to of­fice — the Lib­eral Party room will be able to rid it­self of a leader only if two thirds of its mem­bers sup­port the move.

Speak­ing to the press af­ter­wards, the Prime Min­is­ter ex­plained the ef— fect of the change will be that “an elected Lib­eral Party leader who goes to the elec­tion, wins that elec­tion and be­comes Prime Min­is­ter … will re­main Prime Min­is­ter for that full par­lia­men­tary term: they will not be able to be re­moved from that of­fice.”

The best thing to be said for this is that you can hardly ac­cuse the man of act­ing out of self-in­ter­est given how re­mote the chances are of him be­ing re­turned next year. Alas that’s also al­most the only good thing you can say for it. Mor­ri­son is right, of course, when he says that peo­ple have been an­gered and dis­ap­pointed by the re­moval of Tony Ab­bott and more lately Mal­colm Turn­bull.

But even so, this idea is still a shocker con­ceived in panic with­out thought for the con­se­quences that will in­evitably fol­low down the track a bit like his Jerusalem em­bassy thought bub­ble, re­ally.

To re­turn to the end of Gorton. Back in those more in­no­cent times it was ob­vi­ous to all that un­der a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem a leader can’t hope to carry on if half his col­leagues want him gone. Ap­par­ently this is no longer the case. Fu­ture Lib­eral PMs will ap­par­ently now be able to blithely con­tinue even if al­most two-thirds of the party’s MPs have voted for their re­moval. That isn’t a recipe for sta­bil­ity, it’s a recipe for chaos. In the ab­sence of a mech­a­nism for re­mov­ing a mad, bad, or ve­nal or plain hope­less leader in the party room, MPs de­ter­mined to ef­fect a change will be forced to turn to the only op­tion left open to them: the floor of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

If you think that is a silly idea, you haven’t been watch­ing po­lit­i­cal events in the UK over the past few months. Over there the Tory Party has rules that re­quire a thresh­old of MPs’ votes be­fore a lead­er­ship bal­lot can be held. Their leader, Theresa May, is not a pop­u­lar fig­ure in her party at the mo­ment to put it po­litely. But those de­ter­mined to re­move her have been un­able to get the nec­es­sary num­ber of votes for rea­sons that have more to do with a fear of a Boris John­son premier­ship than af­fec­tion for the PM.

Blocked by their party’s rules from re­mov­ing the leader, the rebels are now clearly de­ter­mined to de­stroy her premier­ship on the floor of House of Com­mons. In this case, as with Mor­ri­son’s change, a rule a de­signed to cre­ate sta­bil­ity is hav­ing the op­po­site ef­fect.

The best thing to be said for Mor­ri­son’s change is that it was al­most far worse than the two-thirds ab­sur­dity they have landed on. Had sev­eral Cab­i­net min­is­ters had their way, the rule would have changed so that it took a vote of 75 per cent of the party room to re­move a prime min­is­ter. That was re­jected after a mutiny on the floor of the meet­ing, led by the Vic­to­rian MPs Rus­sell Broad­bent and Tim Wil­son. Their ob­jec­tions were that a thresh­old of 75 per cent rule would ef­fec­tively give the Cab­i­net and ju­nior min­is­ters to­gether a veto on a lead­er­ship change, which given Lib­eral PMs pick the front bench would hardly be a recipe for sta­bil­ity. It would also be a recipe for a min­istry stacked with creeps, crawlers and place­men — as MPs wholly-owned by the lead­er­ship were called in the 18th cen­tury.

LEAD­ER­SHIP: Former Prime Min­is­ter “Jolly John” Gorton.

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