Westminster in the Antipodes

I’ve written a piece for the Conversation about a side issue in the Rudd-Gillard contest, namely the view that, under the Westminster system, voters elect the politicians who then choose the PM. Rudd’s proposed reforms obviously contradict that. I argue that Rudd is effectively codifying the existing system, as established by the bulk of historical precedent and understood by voters, and rejecting the view of insiders (especially the kind who appear on Insiders, or so I’m told – I’ve never watched the show and plan never to do so).

As a side issue, my piece was extensively edited for publication. With the natural pride of authorship, I thought my original (over the fold) was better. But I’d be interested in a reality check on this from readers here.

As I’ve said before, I don’t want to rehash the substantive merits of Rudd and Gillard at further length here. If you want to have your say on this, go to the Crooked Timber post I’ve linked.

Kevin Rudd’s proposals to prevent the ALP Caucus from deposing a sitting Prime Minister has raised the hoary issue of the Westminster system. The dominant view among insider pundits is that, under the Westminster system, the voters elect members of Parliament and they (in practice, those who belong to the party with a Lower House majority, or the larger share of a coalition) choose the PM. This claim is debatable at best, nonsensical at worst.

To state the obvious, Westminster is on the other side of the planet, and the Parliament located there bears only a distant relationship to our own. Among the obvious differences are the presence of a (mostly) appointed Upper House, a hereditary Head of State and a Lower House elected on a first-past-the-post basis with voluntary voting. Within that system, parties have chosen their leaders using a range of methods, including ballots of party members.

More important, perhaps is the fact Australia is a federation with a written constitution, while the UK has no written constitution and is a quasi-unitary state.

The importance of the constitution is qualified by the fact that it prescribes very little about the way the country should be governed. It does not mention Prime Ministers or political parties, even though both were well-established features of the Westminster system when it is written. So, the relationship between the PM, the majority party in the Lower House (if there is one) and the Parliament as a whole is one of convention, and convention can evolve over time.

The way our system has worked in practice, at least since the creation of the Liberal party by Menzies, voters choose between candidates based on perceptions of the party leader and the party label. Well-liked local candidates may gain a handful of percentage points in the ballot, but this is of trivial importance overall. Since party allegiances are relatively stable, the decisive factor is normally the choice of leader.

The complicated part of the story is the way in which leaders are changed. Roughly speaking, the rules that have evolved are as follows

* Leaders defeated at an election normally resign, and can expect to be deposed if they do not
* The Opposition can change leaders whenever the majority of the Parliamentary party judges it to be desirable
* Incumbent Prime Ministers can be deposed in the face of imminent electoral disaster
* Defeated leaders can return if they are willing to wait long enough for their successors to fail

There have been only a handful of exceptions to the first rule in recent decades. Labor was more loyal to defeated leaders in the past, giving Chifley, Evatt and Calwell three tries each. Whitlam was given a second go after 1975 but resigned immediately after his loss in 1977. Beazley had a near-win in 1998, and was also given a second go in 2001. There are probably some more exceptions at the state level, though none come immediately to mind.

The second rule is uncontroversial, though of course the actual choices may be debated. Instances of the fourth include Howard in 1985, Peacock in 1989, Howard again in 1995, Beazley in 2005 and now Rudd.

The real difficulty, illustrated in the case of Rudd and Gillard, arises with the replacement of sitting Prime Ministers. On this issue, there is a clear conflict between the majority of voters, who assume that they are supposed to choose the PM, and the advocates of the Westminster system, who say that this right belongs to the Parliamentary Caucus of the party with a lower house majority. As was already noted, the Constitution is silent on this matter, so the question can only be resolved by looking at actual experience.

The two previous cases in the postwar era were those of John Gorton and Bob Hawke. Gorton only held office because the seemingly obvious choice, MacMahon hand been vetoed by Country Party leader John McEwen. As soon as McEwen retired, Gorton was dumped. This anomalous case tells us little, except perhaps that McEwen was a good judge of character.

Hawke’s defeat by Keating tends to support the Caucus supremacy view. However, Hawke’s defeat took place in dire electoral circumstances, comparable to the recent switch from Gillard to Rudd. The deep recession, and Hawke’s inability to respond to the Fightback! package proposed by Opposition leader John Hewson created a general view that Labor was doomed without a change. Arguably, the procedures now proposed by PM Rudd might have been invoked in this case.

At the state level, the case is similar. The dumping of Iemma and Rees by NSW Labor, and Baillieu by the Victorian Liberals took place when an electoral wipeout loomed, although the NSW moves proved unavailing and the case in Victoria has yet to be tested.

In all of this, then, the Rudd dumping in 2010 stands as an anomaly. Despite a couple of bad polls, Rudd was certainly not facing inevitable electoral disaster. As has been made abundantly clear, the main reasons for his removal were that a number of his colleagues, including some of the most senior, strongly disliked him, and that he had incurred the displeasure of factional heavyweights who commanded a substantial block of votes in Caucus.

Although Labor scraped back into minority government in 2010, it became clear over time that these grounds for removing a sitting PM were not regarded as sufficient by the majority of voters. Despite some substantial achievements, Gillard was never regarded as legitimate by many voters, and every mis-step she made was evaluated in this light.

The interpretation of the Westminster system favored by Canberra insiders has been weighed by the Australian public and found wanting. The changes proposed by Rudd represent, in essence, a codification of the existing situation rather than a radical change. It was the coup against Rudd in 2010 that was a breach of the rules as understood by their ultimate arbiters, the Australian public.

29 thoughts on “Westminster in the Antipodes

  1. If this proposal becomes codified, the correct way of deposing a Labor Prime Minister will be to cross the floor on a no confidence motion. After the conservatives pick up the government, dump the leader of the Labor opposition and install a new party leadership, then moving a no-confidence motion in the conservatives. Easy peasy.

  2. @TerjeP
    I think your characterisation of the ALP rule on union membership isn’t strictly accurate. As I understand it, the rule is and was that ALP members who work in jobs that have union coverage must belong to the relevant union. I haven’t heard that this has been changed. If I understand the rule correctly, it would not have required somebody like Bob Carr, who joined the party as a 15-year-old school student, to be a union member.

    Speaking of Bob Carr, he’s an example of an Opposition Leader at State level who was not dropped from the leadership after losing an election; he led the Opposition from after the election defeat of 1988, through the defeat of 1991, and then on through the return to Government in 1995. In John Quiggin’s home State, and on the other side of politics, Rob Borbidge’s leadership survived defeats as Opposition Leader in 1992 and as Premier in 1998, and Lawrence Springborg’s survived defeat as Opposition Leader in 2004. There are plenty of other recent examples to show that the State political environment is more forgiving of defeated leaders than the Federal one, even in recent years, although in recent years it has become less forgiving than it was in the long-ago, so the general trend does seem to be in the same direction.

  3. hi!,I love your writing very a lot! share we be in contact extra approximately your post on AOL?
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  4. There have been occasions when party leaders would not resign as PM or permier when deposed by their party.

    Bjelke-Petersen refused to resign for 4 days.

    Vince Gair split from labor when the state executive expelled him and half the Cabinet in 1957.

    Billy Hughes and 24 others split from the Labor party to join with the conservatives in 1916.

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