Waleed Aly: Scott Morrison Said No More Leadership Spills, But Don't Hold Your Breath

It says a lot about the recent history of Australian politics that the Prime Minister commenced his election campaign by insisting he’d actually see out his term.

Once upon a time that’s what an aging Prime Minister, three terms in with an ambitious deputy breathing down his neck would say. Scott Morrison has been in the job about eight months.

But that’s exactly why he said it. Morrison knows he is haunted by the leadership spill that gave him his job. He knows this ridiculous revolving door of Prime Ministers -- six in 10 years -- is one of the great frustrations of voters. And he knows it has destroyed the reputations of the parties who have indulged in this, making Labor unelectable in 2013, and leaving the Coalition on its knees now.

It’s for this reason that both major parties have changed their rules to make it more difficult to dump a leader. A Labor Prime Minister can now only be replaced with a 75 percent vote of the caucus. The Liberal Party now requires a two-thirds majority.

Hence the conventional wisdom that the era of leadership coups is now over.

But not so fast.  I still think it’s entirely possible we’ll see leadership changes in the future.

We might not, of course. But we still might. Let me explain.

The thing about leadership coups is that they almost never succeed on the first vote. The pattern is clear enough. The first vote fails but leaves the leader fatally undermined. The second vote, perhaps a few months later, finishes the job as people recognise the situation is more or less unsalvageable.

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Three months before Julia Gillard lost her job she was called on a leadership spill which Kevin Rudd refused to participate in. She therefore survived unopposed, but she remained wounded until Rudd finally moved against her.

Tony Abbott survived a challenge of his own seven months before he was finally dethroned, the catch being that no one ran against him and he still won on 61-39.

Malcolm Turnbull only lasted three days after first seeing off Peter Dutton 48 votes to 35. Even Bob Hawke, who lost his job to Paul Keating in 1991, had beaten Keating six months earlier 66 votes to 44.

The era of leadership coups might not yet be over. (Image: Getty/AAP)

Will this logic change, simply because the threshold for toppling a leader has been lifted? Certainly it makes the task of getting the numbers for a coup harder, but the basic dynamics don’t change. With the exception of the Turnbull-Morrison change -- which made no political sense at all -- leadership spills tend to happen because the Prime Minister is vastly unpopular, the party’s position under them seems irretrievable, and there’s a popular alternative who will instantly revive the government’s fortunes.

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That’s more or less the story of Gillard replacing Rudd, and then Rudd replacing Gillard years later. It’s definitely the story of Turnbull replacing Abbott. So, whatever the threshold needed for change, the result of a first spill will still be an unpopular leader of a tanking government presiding over a party room -- a big portion of which openly stands against them.

Their political fortunes are very unlikely to recover from there, leaving the government with a choice: continue down this hopeless road, or make a change whatever the threshold is. At that point we can expect more votes in the party room to shift away from the leader, as their supporters conclude the pragmatic thing to do is to accept the situation is untenable.

Leadership spills happen because the Prime Minister is unpopular and there’s a popular alternative who will revive the government’s fortunes. Will the logic behind this ever change, whatever the new voting threshold? Image: AAP.

Here it’s important to recognise that for all the hand-wringing they create, and all the damage they do in the long-term, leadership changes also have the political benefits they aim to provide. Does anyone seriously believe that the Coalition would have won in 2016 had Turnbull not replaced Abbott?

Similarly, Labor’s polling position dramatically improved once Gillard replaced Rudd, and even when it crashed later on, Gillard was able to keep Labor in government. And even though Rudd lost in 2013 after deposing Gillard, you’d be hard pressed to argue he didn’t minimise the size of the loss -- saving the furniture, as it were.

We now know from experience that whoever takes the top job this way quickly becomes a diminished figure, and their government a decaying one.  But if the choice is between that and losing the next election, can you trust parties to resist that temptation?

Losing the house but saving the furniture? (Image: AAP)

For me, there are really only two things that might change this calculation.

First, it’s possible the higher thresholds will act as a sufficient deterrent to prevent the first leadership spill happening in the first place. That’s especially true for Labor, whose rules mean that even if the caucus votes to oust a Prime Minister, a second ballot is required that involves rank-and-file party members.

And second, perhaps the cycle of leadership changes has now become so toxic that the appetite for it among politicians has been reduced.

Perhaps Australian politics has genuinely undergone a cultural change that will make future leadership changes taboo. Perhaps they’re now so on the nose that even their short-term benefits won’t be there.

Time will tell. At the very least you’d hope parties have reached the point that the situation would have to be catastrophic before they’d even think of another coup.

I certainly don’t think more leadership changes are inevitable. But we should be cautious in believing they’re necessarily extinct. The door might be slightly less ajar, but it’s certainly still open.