NEW LEADERSHIP RULES PRONE TO UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
A PM without a majority in the partyroom is a daunting prospect
The law of unintended consequences is lurking in the shadows. One suspects too little attention was paid to it when Liberals changed their system for a successful leadership spill motion.
The 50 per cent plus one requirement to spill the leadership was increased to two-thirds in a late-night impromptu partyroom meeting on Monday evening.
For some reason the change, which MPs didn’t realise was on the cards, couldn’t even wait for the scheduled partyroom meeting the following morning.
To be sure, this is not a solution in search of a problem. There is a clear cultural problem: major parties have become too readily prepared to remove elected first-term prime ministers.
Labor did it to Kevin Rudd in 2010 before doing it to Julia Gillard in 2013. That’s why the Labor Party changed its rules on the election of leaders. Its model involves a shared vote between the party membership and the caucus.
Labor’s change, unlike that adopted by the Liberal Party, applies regardless of whether the party is in government or opposition. Undoubtedly it has helped Bill Shorten avoid a challenge during the past five years.
If the Liberals lose the next federal election, as the polls suggest is on the cards, whoever leads the newly minted opposition won’t be protected by the changes announced in the way Labor’s rules have helped protect Shorten.
Proving that adults don’t learn from the mistakes of others, despite Labor shredding its credibility via leadership coups in government, the Liberals repeated the mistake not once but twice: Tony Abbott was torn down in 2015, as was Malcolm Turnbull this year.
Under the changes Scott Morrison announced this week, neither Abbott nor Turnbull would have suffered that fate unless the conspirators obtained two-thirds partyroom support. That at least is what we are supposed to believe. In truth, however, the unintended consequences attached to the rule change could be even worse.
Imagine a prime minister refusing to resign after a clear majority of their parliamentary colleagues no longer supports them. The chaos that would ensue, the lack of authority the prime minister would have, is unimaginable. But the new rules, in theory, would protect such a damaged leader. Such a scenario is possible under both Labor and Liberal leadership rules.
Although the rule change announced on Monday evening may have prevented what happened to Abbott and Turnbull, had Labor had such a system in place in 1991 Paul Keating would not have been able to take over from Bob Hawke and gone on to defeat John Hewson at the 1993 election. That challenge to a prime minister’s tenure proved to be the right thing to do, electorally at least.
Another risk is that prime ministers become even more domineering and autocratic than they already have the potential to be.
If a majority of MPs can’t remove their leader, that leader’s authority is disproportionately exaggerated.
The unintended consequences of that are far reaching, potentially raising new cultural problems for parties and partyrooms to deal with. Imagine how much more dominant prime ministerial offices can become in such circumstances. Or indeed how interventionist an elected prime minister might become in factional fights, preselections, you name it.
The problem the new rules seek to solve is the cultural willingness to roll first-term elected prime ministers, not necessarily any elected prime minister. Hawke had won three elections and broke an agreement with Keating to step aside after the 1990 victory. Does such a prime minister deserve institutional protection from challenges?
In a parliamentary system a majority of MPs need to have the authority to choose their leader, especially beyond a first term. Liberal MP and former constitutional lawyer Julian Leeser proposed in the partyroom that the rule change should apply only to a first-term prime minister, but this was rejected by Morrison.
Such a model certainly would have fewer unintended consequences than the one adopted.
Despite the spin that the partyroom was in robust agreement over the change, several doubts were raised. Eric Abetz, for example, expressed concerns about the optics of a prime minister surviving with less than 50 per cent partyroom support. One Liberal senator sarcastically remarked to me: “I didn’t realise we were in the business of electing emperors.”
It is ironic that the conservative side of politics rushed through such an important change with only limited debate. Conservatives are supposed to pressure-test ideas before they are adopted. Unintended consequences are something the father of liberalism, British philosopher John Locke, wrote about in the 17th century.
Another unintended consequence for the Liberal Party in adopting a rule change to solve a cultural problem is the precedent it sets. What now prevents it from doing the same to solve the cultural problem of preselecting so few women? Quotas anyone? Liberals have long claimed they dis- agree with solving cultural problems with a rule-based change, but they have done exactly that in the context of leadership volatility.
Perhaps the deepest irony is that Morrison is the leader instituting this rule change. The Prime Minister claimed in his postpartyroom media conference that the Liberal parliamentary party was “acknowledging that its own conduct over this period of time needs to be changed”.
No doubt, but Morrison was in the thick of it when both Liberal prime ministers were torn down. He deserted Abbott for Turnbull on the understanding he would be promoted to treasurer. After 39 MPs voted for an empty chair instead of Abbott on the first spill he faced, Morrison’s first act when he returned to his office was to phone Turnbull and discuss the next step. Then, when Turnbull was being torn down by Peter Dutton supporters, Morrison was busily ringing around to sound out colleagues for support for his own bid to become prime minister. He was crafting his potential team while Turnbull’s body was still warm.
For all the discussion this week about the changes to Liberal partyroom rules for a spill, there is no escaping the fact it’s a nonbinding change. The Liberal Party does not have formal rules for partyroom activities. Conventions are the name of the game. There is no booklet that can be waved around as a source of authority. In other words, Morrison’s change requiring two-thirds partyroom support for a spill motion can itself be overturned by a simple majority.
And because the Coalition is likely to lose — and lose big — at the next election, thereafter perhaps spending a long time in the political wilderness of opposition, it could be a decade or more before Morrison’s change will have a role to play anyway.