Rudd and Gillard

Open Season: The Australian Prime Ministership

The Australian parliamentary party room has been variously likened to a Darwinian animal kingdom, a Chicago street gang, and an ongoing hunt with the party leader always in the crosshairs.Though superficially hyperbolic such descriptions give some insight into the competitive and often ruthless nature of Australian politics. Nowhere is this more evident than the recent instability of the Australian prime ministership.

Of the past nine sitting prime ministers three have been removed from their post not by the conclusion of their term or through a general election but as a result of the internal machinations of their own party. This is made possible by current Australian methods of party leadership selection, unique even among Westminster parliamentary systems, which create a constant avenue for overthrow. At all times an Australian prime minister is beholden to a party room constituency often more critical and petty than the general public. Ambition and personal disputes beget the peculiar management challenge of satisfying parliamentary peers who not only have the collective power to oust their leader but also to judge this individual using whatever criteria they see fit.

This essay therefore argues that incumbent prime ministers, while prosecuting policy and engaging with the public, must constantly maintain almost campaign-style relations with their colleagues. It first describes the institutional setting for deposition before turning to the formal and informal powers of prime ministers. This discussion will be used to explain the constant necessity of successfully managing parliamentary colleagues to retain the leadership. Finally the essay will examine the depositions of John Gorton, Bob Hawke, and Kevin Rudd to demonstrate that in each case there has at some juncture been a failure by the prime minister to successfully manage intra-party ambition and relationships. A tendency to subordinate party traditions to individualistic decision-making processes and appeal to the electorate over the party room also links these cases. The survival of John Howard further demonstrates that maintaining positive party relations can aid a prime minister even with a damaging external environment.

These depositions would not have been possible without the particular institutions of Australia’s major parties which create a context and mechanism for overthrow. Most broadly the parliamentary system shapes the character of Labor and the Coalition and influences the concerns of individual parliamentarians. This impact can be seen in the reputation of parties in parliamentary systems as strongly cohesive. Theoretically the integrated nature of the executive and the legislature provides incentive for unity if members desire their government (or opposition) to be effective and successful. Indeed, Ulrich Sieberer shows that unity is empirically higher in parliamentary systems than in presidential ones.2 In an investigation of the nature of Australian political parties Dean Jaensch observed that Australia’s major parties are often cited as ‘the most disciplined in the democratic world’,3 a trait exemplified by Howard’s belief that ‘disunity is death’.4 The importance of the party in Australian politics therefore shapes the activities and decision-making processes of parliament, with the risk of harming the party limiting outbreaks of warfare between their members. In this setting the public and bloody deposition of a sitting prime minister stands out as an anomaly.

To some extent this can be explained by weaknesses in the parliamentary system for individual members. As Sieberer contends, those party leaders who are secure in safe seats prioritise party cohesiveness, while backbenchers are concerned with re-election in more volatile electorates.5 Further, Australian representatives—like their British counterparts—have their fates tied strongly to national politics rather than constituencies, as in the United States.6 With party cohesion the norm, marginal seats are lost based on national swings as opposed to individual qualities. If elections drive decision-making, the possibility of an unpopular prime minister leading their party toward electoral losses could play on the minds of their parliamentary backbenchers. While useful in understanding possible rationales for deposition, these concerns alone do not account for the trend of overthrow in recent Australian political history. Certainly they are not a satisfactory institutional explanation, particularly when viewed alongside comparable democracies.

Australia’s outlying status arises from the selection processes of its parties. As Thomas Quinn notes, selection institutions greatly impact the ease with which intra-party actors can depose their leaders.7 As Westminster style democracies, the United Kingdom and Canada provide useful counterexamples to the Australian case—particularly when testing a claim such as that by James Davis that Australian prime ministers are more vulnerable from within their own party than their counterparts abroad ‘as a rule’.8 William Cross and André Blais reveal the reason for this as the dominance of parliamentary parties in leadership politics as compared to the extra-parliamentary party.9 In Australia, only the party room can vote to remove a leader. This is unlike the UK or Canada, where leadership contests are part of a wider process in which—depending on the party in question—the broader membership has some power in determining the leader. As Glyn Davis argues, the complexity of organising a spill with the involvement of the wider party favours the incumbent.10 British and Canadian leaders have accordingly endured longer in office. Conversely, Australia’s combination of generally cohesive national parties and party-room-only selection processes has created a unique structure for power relations.

The existence of accessible (and utilised) deposition mechanisms in both major parties forces reconsideration of just how much power prime ministers actually wield. Patrick Weller convincingly puts the notion of presidentialisation to rest with his claim that ‘most American presidents would dearly love to have the same power as any Australian prime minister’, as the prime ministership entails guaranteed support in parliament and cabinet for party goals.11 However, this does not reveal any great trend towards authority. As noted in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Cabinet Handbook the prime minister is generally recognised as ‘first among equals’ rather than a uniquely powerful political figure.12 As such, the power to manage parliamentary colleagues arises from their formal roles as Chair of the Cabinet and party leader, as bolstered or weakened by personal qualities and resources.

Indeed, Mark Bennister, through a comparative study of Britain and Australia, concludes that despite an increase in institutional capacity, power is highly contingent on personal resources.13 Richard Heffernan elaborates on the need for these personal resources due to the ‘core degree of collegiality’ in parliamentary systems—that is, prime ministers are constrained by their need to accommodate their colleagues, yet retain influence due to their position at the ‘centre of the core’.14 The ability of Australian parliamentarians to depose their leader further complicates this balance of power. As Weller argues, this Australian mechanism has assisted in maintaining a strong cabinet.15 If a challenger has enough caucus numbers they can usurp the leadership, creating a strong incentive for prime ministers to maintain positive relations with their cabinet colleagues and the wider party room, including potential successors. However, the odds are not stacked against the leadership. The tendency toward party unity advantages incumbents due to the damage a leadership contest may have on a party’s electoral standing.16 It is also difficult to organise against a leader, particularly when backbenchers consider the consequences for their own standing in the party should they support a failing contest.17 In this way the party room becomes a kind of electorate, with particular concerns and priorities that a prime minister must satisfy if they wish to remain at the top—or at least the core—of Australian politics.

With parliamentary colleagues as the only selectors, prime ministers have no choice but to monitor and react to the concerns of their peers. As spills can be called at any time, this internal election cycle is ongoing, and a Ciceronian strategy of cultivating ‘favours, hope, and personal attachment’ is a constant necessity.18 A challenge in any circumstance, achieving this feat in the party room takes on a new level of difficulty. As Annabel Crabb writes, ‘politicians are people’.19 Parliamentarians can make their decision on any basis they wish, whether this is personal, a policy issue, concern for electoral prospects, or any other matter. Australia’s electoral cycle is often noted for its brevity,20 but in the party room success is judged by even more fluctuating standards. Though every instance has had its own particular character, deposed prime ministers have each at some time failed to manage this harsh fact of political life. In particular, their personalities and management styles have been central to provoking spills, with a tendency to appeal to the electorate over the heads of the party room being a common thread in the fall of Australian prime ministers. Also notable is a perceived lack of respect for traditional party priorities or institutions.

The 1971 deposition of John Gorton, to date the only Liberal prime minister overthrown in this fashion, exemplifies the influence of unilateralism and personality on intra-party perceptions of a leader. To be sure, as Alan Ramsey notes, prior to his fall Gorton was under fire due to the Vietnam War and the loss of seats gained under Harold Holt.21 However, it took the resignation of Malcolm Fraser as Minister for Defence, after a period of alleged interference by Gorton in the Defence portfolio, to spark the spill that uniquely had a prime minister cast the deciding vote in his own overthrow.22 Fraser’s belief that Gorton ‘had the wrong personality and the wrong character to be prime minister’ played some role in his decision to step down and knowingly throw the leadership into turmoil.23 Equally revealing is his sarcastic claim that ‘it was a rather nice atmosphere in that Gorton government’.24 Paul Hasluck, a Minister for External Affairs under Gorton, similarly characterised the prime minister as having ‘tremendous self-confidence and … very little self-knowledge’ with an ‘untidy and irregular method of working’.25 Gorton’s proposals for changes in the party’s stance on federalism were widely unsupported, yet he rashly went into meetings and confronted Liberal Premiers.26 Personal dissatisfaction within the party was therefore as instrumental to this deposition as external circumstances. As Alan Reid argues, Gorton ‘was his own executioner’—his fall was ‘not planned by his opponents’.27 Laurie Oakes and David Solomon note that while Gorton was selected for the leadership for his televisual charm, his party would discover ‘thoroughly divisive’ qualities and views which would ‘outweigh his public attractiveness’.28 According to Gerard Henderson, Gorton ‘did it his way … but not constructively so’.29 Despite retaining faith in his own ability to connect to the Australian electorate, poor people management and unilateralism led to a collapse in support within Gorton’s own party.

Bob Hawke, similarly famed for his ability to connect to the electorate, also sowed the seeds of his own defeat despite being notable for his longevity. In this case an increasingly stubborn yet erratic management style and an internal rival, Paul Keating, heightened the instability preceding his fall. As Joel Bateman argues, Hawke alienated some within his party through ‘seeking a new direction and … acting without consultation’ on issues such as airline deregulation, uranium sales to France and education policy.30 As a result his hold on the leadership was, like Gorton’s, largely based on electoral success rather than any strong faith in his skill. Hawke’s ostensible ‘love affair’ with the Australian people, as Stephen Mills contends, was only possible at the expense of his relationship with the caucus.31 In this sense he failed to acknowledge that the prime ministership derives primarily from the party room, not the wider electorate. If faith in his electability was lost, as occurred when opposition leader John Hewson unveiled his “Fightback” economic package and Hawke was unable to effectively respond, thoughts of an alternative leader would be readily entertained: enter Keating. Perhaps above all else Hawke’s mismanagement of Keating’s personal ambitions contributed to the nature of his departure. His decision to make an agreement to hand the leadership to Keating at an appropriate point in time would later intensify Keating’s resentment as Hawke reneged on this pledge.32 While this did not necessarily impact party room perceptions, it certainly influenced the amount of pressure Keating would increasingly place on the issue. As Paul Kelly notes, ‘it was inevitable once Hawke made this pact that Keating would challenge if Hawke broke it’.33 Further fuelling this internal struggle was Hawke’s management of Graham Richardson after retracting his offer to Richardson of the Defence portfolio. In Richardson’s own words, ‘all I could think of was revenge … I was now completely won over to Keating’s side’.34 Although publicly popular, Hawke’s failure to manage his colleagues’ ambitions contributed slowly but surely to his overthrow, and his preference for policies not traditionally favoured by Labor did him no favours with the wider party room.

The swift deposition of Kevin Rudd highlights even more closely the personal nature of party room spills. While debate continues over the plans of Rudd’s successor Julia Gillard and her supporters, it is clear that the ease with which Rudd was deposed was aided by widespread distaste for him in the party room on a purely personal level.35 Particularly revealing is Crabb’s discussion with a Labor backbencher, who offered that despite the fact that they largely agreed with his policies, ‘it’s just that I hate him so very much’.36 Another source, filtered through political foe Alexander Downer, believed that ‘one day the Australian public will grow to hate Kevin Rudd as much as I do’.37 As David Marr argues, Rudd’s rise to power ‘was a peculiar triumph over his own party’s opposition—indeed, derision … [his colleagues] loathe the man’.38 In this context Rudd overestimated the debt he was owed for returning the party to power. By overriding Labor’s organisational tradition of factional nomination of cabinet, Rudd immediately stoked anger in much the same way as Gorton’s penchant for federalism and Hawke’s policy pursuits.39 His fall was hastened by rudeness and micromanagement, exemplified by his attempts to concentrate power around the prime ministership and immediate cabinet colleagues, as well as an apparent inability to complete any of a vast number of projects such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, home insulation and the heavily criticised education revolution.40 When fear of electoral loss grew (aided by headlines such as ‘Rudd’s polls suggest Labor may be cactus’)41 the sole reason for maintaining Rudd’s leadership was pulled from underneath him. While polls act as an indicator of electability they are notorious for fluctuation and imprecision. As such the lack of party room sympathy when the question of leadership was raised can only be explained by by Rudd’s personal failings.

The survival of John Howard despite what many saw as instability comparable to the Hawke-Keating rivalry provides an interesting comparison to these depositions. Above all his success can be attributed to his talent in handling the electorate that is the parliamentary party room, even when faced with internal and external challenges. Bateman’s argument that on the whole Howard skilfully managed relationships within the party supports this view, providing a reason for the lack of a serious challenge to his authority over twelve years as leader.42 This is particularly evident in light of the leadership ambitions of Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Peter Costello, whose presence echoed Labor’s internal struggles. An apparent secret deal with Costello, similar to Hawke’s pact, raised questions of whether this would cause similar destabilisation.43 This never occurred largely because Costello never had the numbers to mount a successful challenge—for leadership to change Howard would have had to step down voluntarily.44 If favours, hope, and personal attachment win the day in an election, Howard effectively used the resources at his disposal to carry the party room. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington make note of Howard’s ‘renowned carrot and stick approach to executive promotion’, while acknowledging the importance of his willingness to give hearing to different perspectives.45 Despite his great faith in party unity his permission of debate appears to have satisfied the party room. Doubts that Costello could do a better job and Howard’s own success at managing the ambitions of his colleague therefore complemented his tight control of party discipline, keeping him in the prime ministership even in the face of almost certain electoral defeat.46 The case of Howard therefore gives weight to the argument that incumbent prime ministers must respect traditions and colleagues to maintain their post. External factors such as polling have a strong influence, but politicians are people, and personal relationships and loyalty can have greater power.

Prime ministers have a delicate balance to strike. They must be popular in the Australian electorate and act as a party leader, but they must also respond to the private concerns of their parliamentary colleagues. As this essay has shown, only the particular leadership selection processes of Australian political parties provide the party room with the means to remove their leader. This creates a kind of intimate electorate which a prime minister ignores at their peril. Attempts to strip colleagues of power, the pursuit of unpopular policies, or simple disrespect for parliamentary colleagues can create great incentive for party members to pull the lever on a spill. Electability is important, but—as the case of Howard demonstrates—it can to some extent be overlooked. Interestingly, current instability in the Labor government has raised the question of whether Rudd may yet return.47 If this is to occur he will need to convince his colleagues to forget his management style and their personal hatred in favour of his public popularity. The party room will need to weigh the electoral chances of Gillard against their distaste for Rudd, and inside the party room decisions are made based on their own logic. Personal resentment may trump the desire to win a seat, other times it may not. For this reason the prime ministership is constantly exposed to attack. As Weller has claimed, in Australian politics it is always open season.

This piece was originally published by Meanjin.

  1. See James W. Davis, Leadership Selection in Six Western Democracies(Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998), 172; Glyn Davis, “Leader of the Gang: How political parties choose numero uno,” Griffith ReviewSingle Issue (2011): 4; and Patrick Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” inCritical Reflections on Australian Public Policy: Selected Essays, ed. John Wanna (Canberra, ANU Press,2009), 82.
  2. Ulrich Sieberer, “Party Unity in Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Analysis,”Journal of Legislative Studies 12, no. 2 (2006): 151-152.
  3. Dean Jaensch et al,Australian Political Parties in the Spotlight(Australian National University: Democratic Audit of Australia Report No. 4, 2004), 21.
  4. Stephen Lunn, “John Howard warns disunity is death,” The Australian, 20 February, 2009, available: 1 June 2012).
  5. Sieberer, “Party Unity in Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Analysis,” 152.
  6. Lawrence D. Longley and Reuven Y. Hazan, “On the Uneasy, Delicate, yet Necessary Relationships between Parliamentary Members and Leaders,” The Journal of Legislative Studies5, no. 3-4 (1999): 13.
  7. Thomas Quinn, “Leasehold or Freehold? Leader-Eviction Rules in the British Conservative and Labour Parties,”Political Studies 53 (2005): 793-794.
  8. J. Davis, Leadership Selection in Six Western Democracies, 168.
  9. William Cross and André Blais, “Holding Party Leaders to Account: The Westminster Cases,” inHow Power Changes Hands: Transition and Succession in Government, eds. Paul ‘t Hart and John Uhr (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 153.
  10. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 28.
  11. Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” 76.
  12. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Cabinet Handbook, 7th Edition(Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2012), 8.
  13. Mark Bennister, “Tony Blair and John Howard: Comparative Predominance and ‘Institution Stretch’ in the UK and Australia,”British Journal of Politics and International Relations9, no. 3 (2007): 329.
  14. Richard Heffernan, “Prime ministerial predominance? Core executive politics in the UK,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations5, no. 3 (2003): 349-364.
  15. Weller, “Cabinet Government: Australian Style,” 81.
  16. Quinn, “Leasehold or Freehold?” 795-796.
  17. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 24.
  18. Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman with commentary by James Carville, “Campaign Tips From Cicero: The Art of Politics, From the Tiber to the Potomac,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 3 (2012): 21.
  19. Annabel Crabb, “Gillard, Rudd and Labor’s Personality Tragedy,” The Drum, updated 12 September 2011, available: 28 May 2012).
  20. G. Davis, “Leader of the Gang,” 28.
  21. Alan Ramsey, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  22. Bridget Griffin-Foley, “Sir Frank Packer and the Leadership of the Liberal Party, 1967-71,” Australian Journal of Political Science 36, no. 3 (2001): 506-508.
  23. Malcolm Fraser, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  24. ibid.
  25. Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics(Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 1997), 175-178.
  26. Laurie Oakes and David Solomon, The Making of an Australian Prime Minister (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1973), 39-40.
  27. Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment: The Fall of John Gorton (Sydney: Shakespeare Head Press, 1971), 392-393.
  28. Oakes and Solomon,The Making of an Australian Prime Minister, 36-37.
  29. Gerard Henderson, “Sir John Grey Gorton,” InAustralian Prime Ministers, ed. Michelle Grattan (Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 2000), 311.
  30. Joel Bateman, “Australian Prime Ministers and Deposition: John Gorton and Bob Hawke Compared” (paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Adelaide, 2004), 10.
  31. Stephen Mills, The Hawke Years: The Story from the Inside(Ringwood: Viking, 1993), 78.
  32. Michael Gordon, Paul Keating: A Question of Leadership (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993), 149-150.
  33. Paul Kelly, The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 455.
  34. Graham Richardson,Whatever it Takes(Sydney: Bantam Books, 1994), 283.
  35. Pamela Williams, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class, Melbourne, 2012.
  36. Crabb, “Gillard, Rudd and Labor’s Personality Tragedy.”
  37. Alexander Downer, “Meet the real Kevin Rudd,” The Spectator, 17 June 2010.
  38. David Marr, “Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd,” Quarterly Essay38 (2010): 5-6.
  39. James Walter, “Can Kevin kick the command culture?” (paper presented to the Australian Political Studies Association Conference, Hilton Hotel Brisbane, 2008), 13.
  40. Mark Evans, “The rise and fall of the magic kingdom: understanding Kevin Rudd’s domestic statecraft,” in The Rudd Government: Australian Commonwealth Administration 2007-2010, eds. Chris Aulich and Mark Evan (ANU E Press, 2010), 269-271.
  41. Laurie Oakes, On the Record: Politics, Politicians and Power(Sydney: Hachette, 2010), 353.
  42. Joel Bateman, “John Howard’s Loss of Leadership,” (paper presented to the Australia Political Science Association Conference, University of Melbourne, 2010), 1.
  43. Gerard Henderson, “The Howard Government: Success but not Succession,”Sydney Institute Quarterly no. 33 (2008): 10-14.
  44. ibid., 17.
  45. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, “Evaluating the extent of Howard’s political genius,” (paper presented to The Australian Sociological Association Conference, University of Western Australia and Murdoch University, 2006), 6.
  46. Peter van Onselen and Phillip Senior,Howard’s End: The Unravelling of a Government(Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2008), v.
  47. Williams, conversation with “The Fall of Australian Prime Ministers” class.

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