Plotting not what it used to be
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.