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What’s a leadership spill?

Since 2007, there have been a lot of leadership changes within Australia’s major parties. Australia has seen six Prime Ministers since 2007 — Kevin Rudd (twice), Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. When there’s been a change of leader within the same party, it’s been because of a leadership spill.

A leadership spill is when there’s a declaration that the leadership of a parliamentary party is vacant and open for re-election. Spills are generally brought about when there is disquiet and discontent around the current leadership. The spill may resolve all leadership positions — Leader and Deputy Leader, or just simply the Leader of the Party. 

A spill will result in a change of leadership position if: 

  • a leader decides not to participate in a contest for the leadership
  • a leader participates in, but does not win, a leadership contest

How does it work?

The Leader calls for a meeting with all members of the party where the positions are declared vacant. Nominations for those roles are then called. A vote then happens and whoever has the 50% plus one majority becomes the leader.

What are some examples?  

Recent examples include spills in 2018, where there were two leadership spills in the same week for the Liberal Party (known as LibSpill). The first was a failed spill. Both Prime Minister at the time Malcolm Turnbull’s role and Deputy Leader at the time Julie Bishop’s role were vacant. Minister for Home Affairs at the time Peter Dutton challenged Turnbull’s role of Leader. Dutton didn’t have the numbers in the party and Turnbull won that challenge and retained his leadership. Just days later however, there was a second spill. Turnbull did not contest the ballot (did not run) and Treasurer at the time Scott Morrison, Dutton, and Bishop all ran for the leadership position. Bishop was voted out in the first round of voting, and Morrison defeated Dutton. Morrison has been Prime Minister ever since. 

Let’s be clear though, this isn’t unique to one side of politics. In 2010, there was a Labor Party leadership spill, where Prime Minister at the time Kevin Rudd was challenged by Julia Gillard for the leadership position. Rudd did not contest the challenge, meaning Gillard won unopposed. Two years later there was a spill announced by Gillard, after Rudd announced his resignation from his Cabinet position and intention to challenge Gillard for the leadership. While he wasn’t successful on that particular occasion, he later won back the leadership in another spill.

Now, we’re reading reports of a potential spill on a state level. NSW Labor Jodi McKay is facing strong pressure from her party following Saturday’s by-election, and we’re already seeing a few other MPs firm up as potential new leaders. There’s every chance this doesn’t materialise, so we’ll keep you posted.

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