Posted by: asprockett | June 27, 2013

Leadership Spill Leads to a New Australian Prime Minister

These last few days have been very exciting in Australia, and not just because of the second of three State of Origin Rugby League games between the Blues and the Maroons. On Wednesday, June 26, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) held a leadership spill. Here is where I should back up.

In Australia, you don’t vote directly for the prime minister. Rather, you vote for your political party of choice who then votes internally for the leader of their party. If that political party wins the majority in Parliament, the leader of the party becomes the prime minister. Follow that? So when you vote (and voting is mandatory in Australia), you know who is leading your party of choice which generally means you know who you are electing as prime minister. However, you are actually voting for the political party, not the person. And in situations like this Wednesday, the party can decide to change its leadership through what’s called a leadership spill. When the party is the majority in power that leadership change results in a change in Australia’s Prime Minister.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister three years ago. She was serving as Deputy Prime Minister to PM Kevin Rudd when Rudd lost the support of the Labor Party. A leadership spill was held, and Gillard was elected head of the majority party, therefore becoming Prime Minister in 2010.

Since that time, she has faced harsh criticism of her political leadership, much of which centered on how she has dealt with Australia’s refugees and the carbon tax. According to news media reports, the Gillard administration is so unpopular that nearly everyone is predicting that the Labor Party will lose the majority of ministerial seats in parliament, and current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will be elected Australia’s next Prime Minister.

With an election looming this September, there has been serious debate over ALP leadership, with rumblings of a leadership change with a return to former prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Several polls have indicated that the ALP will lose fewer Parliamentary seats with Rudd leading the party instead of Gillard. And although Rudd had previously declared that he would not challenge Gillard in a leadership spill, members of the party began clamoring for change.

So, after weeks of discussion and with only two days remaining in sitting Parliament, Gillard was asked to call for a leadership vote, and so she scheduled it at 7 pm on Wednesday (just an hour before the start of the all-important State of Origin game). The thinking was supposedly that with only 1 hour and 45 minutes to prepare for the vote it would throw the Labor opposition into disarray and would allow Gillard to win the contest. Both Gillard and Rudd agreed that whoever lost the vote would immediately retire from politics. We are talking all or nothing here! After an hour of balloting, returning officer Chris Hayes, announced Rudd was the victor with a 57 to 45 vote in his favor. While the news media had many questions, Hayes didn’t have time to address them, essentially saying, “State of Origin is on. Go Blues!”

There was further speculation that Abbott and the opposition Liberal party would call for a vote of no confidence on Thursday morning, making Rudd the shortest reigning prime minister ever. A vote of no confidence is taken in the lower house of Parliament. If the majority of members vote no confidence in the current government the prime minister is required to resign. The governor-general (the Queen’s representative in Australia) will then call on the opposition leader to form a new government, essentially handing the power to the opposing party (aka, the party who called for the no confidence vote).

However, Abbott has changed his mind and will not call for a vote of no confidence.

To round out the proceedings, Gillard then had to contact Governor-General Quentin Bryce to organize Rudd’s commissioning as the new Prime Minister. He was officially sworn in on Thursday morning.

Trying to understand everything that has happened has required a lot of background reading and question asking, but the gist of it is that Australia has a new prime minister as of last night. It is a little like if, right before the last election, the democratic party got fed up with Barack Obama, and decided to replace him with Hillary Clinton three months before the election because they thought she had a better chance of winning. Or, at the minimum, of helping the Democratic party not lose as badly to the Republicans.

It is a bit mind-blowing that such drastic changes can be made so rapidly in the Australian government, but then again, it also has some advantages over the system in the United States. If leadership is ineffective and nothing is getting done, a vote of no confidence can be used to replace one or both houses of parliament with more competent, cooperative leaders. From what we’ve been reading of American politics, that option is looking more attractive every day!

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