A PM without a ma­jor­ity in the par­ty­room is a daunt­ing prospect

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY - PE­TER VAN ONSELEN CON­TRIBUT­ING ED­I­TOR Pe­ter van Onselen is a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of Western Aus­tralia and Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity.

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.

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