Spill time?

So, who is the PM of Australia at the moment? It’s getting interesting. Again.

Second and third questions: What is the origin of the term, spill, to refer to an intra-party leadership challenge? Is Australia the only country where this term is used?

And for some comparative data context, see this planting from 2010.

There also has been an ongoing conversation about the current case at a planting from 2015. This topic of spills really overflows down under.

55 thoughts on “Spill time?

  1. I believe, constitutionally, the Governor General has no cause to remove or unilaterally replace Malcolm Turnbull. He did win a vote on the Floor of the House yesterday (two days ago?) demonsrating he still holds confidence. Though I doubt Turnbull could get a dissolution at the moment.

    • The Macquarie Dictionary (Sixth Edition) says 12 ‘the declaring vacant of positions when a position above them becomes vacant’, so it is not a simple synonym for ‘depose’ or ‘remove’.

      ‘spill’ was an Oxford Dictionary Word of the Month in May 2015. Their definition is ‘the deliberate creation of vacant positions in a cabinet, political party, or organisation’.

      First use was in the Canberra Times on 20 August 1945. The etymology is unknown but it was almost certainly a metaphor that became a separate meaning for the word.

      Labor, at the start of a ferocious debate in the senate yesterday, rather ostentatiously put: ‘Who is the Prime Minister of Australia?’ as a question without notice. Malcolm Turnbull remains prime minister until the governor-general revokes his commission. If the LNP ultras produce their petition and the Liberal caucus removes Turnbull later today, the new party leader will have to satisfy the governor-general they can form a government. If that person is Dutton that may be quite a complex interview. Even if that person is not Dutton, they may have some difficulty satisfying the governor-general because Turnbull will resign from the house as soon as he resigns as prime minister and the majority just happens to be 1.

      I would imagine His Excellency is ready to strangle each and every member of the Liberal parliamentary party at this point.

      The whole business has been almost universally condemned outside the ranks of the said Liberal parliamentary party. For some idea of the flavour of the senate debate, here is Richard Di Natale, the Greens leader addressing the senate. You really need to watch the video.

      • yes, “spill” seems to be used in a sense that two or more positions, or all linked positions, fall casually vacant (or are “dissolved”, so to speak) uno ictu. As well as parties’ leader and deputy leader positions, I’ve seen it used by journalists to describe a double dissolution (“a spill for the entire House and all 76 Senate seats at once” or words to that effect) and even for company boards (eg, as a “spill” for the entire board rather than no-confidence votes against individual directors).
        Also please note that this great land, alone in the English-speaking world, uses “rooting” in the correct sense of the word.

  2. Comment on the impact of electoral systems on the situation, from a NZ Green Party MP currently in Canberra for a Select Committee investigation
    “The ’Straya spills prove that MMP was one of the best decisions NZ ever made.”

      • “When we moved to MMP in the 90s I remember the argument that New Zealand would become politically unstable if we adopted it. The reverse has been true. Our politicians learnt to talk, negotiate and compromise – all skills Australian politicians may need to adopt if they are going to break the cycle of spills. You can see the difference in the way our two countries have approached climate change. I’m glad our parties are talking about climate policy and putting the important issues above petty personality politics and internecine party wars.”
        This is an interesting argument, but I think it’s too simplistic. I definitely think the resource endowments are a bigger factor in shaping the approach to the climate issue. As for negotiation and compromise, why would that affect intra-party competition for the leadership? I can think of plenty of examples of such conflict within parties under PR systems. And he doesn’t account for the Senate; though he talks about party fragmentation in Australia, and mentions the role of the Senate in bringing down some climate proposals, he doesn’t account for its lack of bringing about the ‘negotiation and compromise’ which PR is supposed to bring.

      • A bit simplistic, perhaps. Certainly the resources are a major factor when it comes to climate policies of the two countries. And obviously the second chamber and federalism make policy-making in Australia more complicated than in unicameral, unitary New Zealand.

        I took the main point to be that politics is more consensual under PR, which is pretty clearly correct.

        The other key point, claiming that internal party behavior is less conflictual under PR, is indeed overstated and perhaps even wrong. See the data I cited in 2010 (linked in the main entry above): it seems that intra-party conflict is actually a more common reason for PMs to leave office between elections under systems where coalitions are the norm than under more majoritarian systems. The data could use some updating, and perhaps a second look at the coding protocol.

        Perhaps the author of the piece meant that the dissenting factions could form their own parties, rather than destabilize the leadership from within. That is plausible, but there are other sources of leadership instability, evidently.

  3. 45-40 in favour of the spill. 40 votes in favour of Turnbull is very much greater than was expected.

  4. In American terms, Morrison is Paul Ryan, Dutton is Michele Bachmann.
    Abbott was kind of Steve King X Donald Trump, especially in the fondness for sound-bites and rhetorical bomb-throwing.
    Julie Bishop would have been.. Alan? Henry? Help me out. Susan Collins? Christie Todd Whitman?

      • “… Peter Dutton, a repellent Ted Cruz figure…” (Maureen Dowd at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/01/opinion/sunday/australia-trump-murdoch.html)

        MoDo, too, is aghast at terminology:

        “… In Australia, they use a deceptively innocent word, “spill,” to describe the brutal parliamentary decapitation wherein politicians can topple popularly elected prime ministers and put another in place for no apparent reason…”

        Come on, surely other Westminster democracies have equivalent terms? New Zealand, I would imagine, uses the te reo Māori word for tipping someone out of their canoe; India, some term in Hindi/ Urdu; Canada, both a quaint English term to fit the Dominion’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”-era constitution (“unwaining”, maybe, or “sconcing”) and an official French equivalent that is eight times as long (“le scrutin par que un parti politique remplace son chef”).

        Or is it only because the other Westminster democracies now go outside the parliamentary caucus (leadership conventions and/or membership ballots) to hire and fire their leaders?

      • I object strongly to Tom’s unkind misrepresentation of Canadian political language. Their equivalently of a spill is obviously not ‘sconcing’ but ‘disensconcing’.

        In other politicolinguistic news, Peter Dutton is being investigated by a select committee of the senate for the questionable granting of au pair visas. There have been quite a lot of jokes about the nanny state.

      • I believe Tom means ‘par lequel’ instead of ‘par que’ in his attempt at a Canadian French term for an internal party leadership election (the phrase used there is in fact ‘course à la chefferie’ and is usually a convention involving the wider membership).

      • I yield to Oliver on this. (I came to French via Italian, so can be vulnerable to “faux amis”…)
        BTW does anyone else use “rolled”?

      • I’m assuming the actual French French term is something vivid like “la décapitation”, but was focusing on the common-law/ Westminster parliamentary systems.

    • Collins and Whitman are notable for their actual dissents from the party line, right? I would classify Bishop, who is subtle about her moderation, as more of a John Bohener-type, right down to the remarkable longevity.

      • Good point – although crossing the floor is rare in general among all Australian major-party MPs (Barnaby Joyce excepted). But yeah, JB = JB.
        Abbott might be more Kobach… they were both Rhodes scholars and I read-ed books by each of them in 1994, long before either went into politics.

      • I’m far from the first person to liken Clive Palmer to Donald Trump – although Palmer is less right-wing on social issues. Recently Clive started plastering Australia, or at least south-east Queensland, with billboards saying “Make Australia Great”. No red trucker caps, though, and omitting the “again” avoids the implication that the country used to be great when it was just white males running the place.
        A lot of others (Phillip Adams, every third or fourth column) have likened Bob Hawke to Bill Clinton.
        One US/ Australian parallel I thought rather striking was Sarah Palin and Jackie Kelly. Sporty brunettes who were in power by age 40 and who gave birth while in office. Families with military ties. Both began as moderates but ended their careers with Muslim-baiting.
        (MSS, I should note that with Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg in the top two policy-making slots (Deputy Prime Minister, reserved under Coalition governments for the Nationals leader, is more an honorific, although specific Nationals-held ministries are quite powerful), the country now has a Pentecostal Prime Minister and a Jewish Treasurer. DFAT will be appropriating funding to rebuild the Third Temple within a week… (-;)

      • Wikipedia says Palin and Kelly were born a week apart. Maybe there’s something to astrology then.

  5. The nation breathes a sigh of relief. We are not quite dancing in the streets because Peter Dutton is not prime minister, but many of us certainly feel the urge.

    Julie Bishop was the most experienced, qualified and electorally effective of the three candidates by a long shot. Naturally the Liberals focused on certain anatomical differences and gave her only 11 votes out of 85.

  6. Populism marches on, looks like Australia is next, but can it’s Preferential Vote system halt it or shaped it to some degree?

    • Actually, populism just suffered a defeat. Far from marching on, their local foot soldier failed in a bid to win the prime ministership and now has to fight an election before next May on a failed leadership attempt that was widely unpopular, even in his own district. The margin in his electorate of Dickson is less than 2% and in the neighbouring electorate of Longman the Coalition suffered a major adverse swing many times that margin just two weeks ago.

      The inevitable onward march of populism is about as reliable as the ash heap of history predictions that used to emerge at regular intervals from an ideology now restricted to North Korea.

    • An interesting question. I’m not aware of any research showing a link between how Liberal MPs voted and whether they depended on Nationals preferences, One Nation (or other far-right splinter party) preferences, Greens preferences (it does happen), or indeed no preferences at all (they exceed 50% on first preferences) in their electoral divisions.
      A link may exist, and I expect The Spectator Australia will shortly be publishing an op-ed along these lines from someone in the No2AV/ flog-Mandela faction, but I am skeptical if for no other reason than that Liberal MHRs and Senators seemed to ignore the discomfort of the largest (in seats) minor party, the one they officially care most about – the one whose leader officially outranks the Liberals’ own deputy – when they ploughed ahead with this leadership change. (At least one Nationals MHR has already quit the Coalition and gone crossbench in disgust at the instability). So if the Libs weren’t swayed by the feelings of the Nationals, whose votes they need in parliament for 1,085 days per triennium, I’d find it hard to credit that any Libs would have been swayed by the feelings of the far-right splinters, or the Greens, or One Nation, whose votes they need at the polling booth on one day every three years.

      • To be fair to the No2AV crowd (and one must admire the consistency with which Margarett Beckett, Caroline Flint, Niall Ferguson and Lord Ashcroft all supported the contemporaneous 2011 Lords Reform Bill to ensure that, when the current holder of each peerage dies, that peerage shall lapse into abeyance, on the logic that allowing peers with living issue to specify an order of succession among their sons and daughters amounts to giving those lucky Lords’s families two, three or more votes at once in the Upper House, therefore undermining the fundamental principles of political quality on which the British constitution has always been founded), it must be conceded that use of AV (or its first cousin, exhaustive lowest-candidate-out re-balloting) does at times encourage tactical voting, as this example shows.

        In a small electorate of only 80 people, true, all professional politicians who have known (and often loathed) each other for years — but yes, this black swan does refute sweeping claims that “AV gets rid of tactical voting”:

        ‘[…] Dirty tricks designed to strip Julie Bishop of votes in the leadership battle were also exposed in WhatsApp text messages between her colleagues. The Whatsapp group included a message from Paul Fletcher warning: “(Senator Mathias) Cormann rumoured to be putting some WA votes behind Julie Bishop in round 1. Be aware that this is a ruse trying to get her ahead of Morrison so he drops out & his votes go to Dutton. “Despite our hearts tugging us to Julie we need to vote with our heads for Scott in round one.” […]’

        – Samantha Maiden, “The Liberal Party ‘rockstar’ overlooked for leadership”,

  7. Obviously there is a market for populists because it doesn’t look like it is going away any time soon.

    • I agree that there’s a market. But it’s interesting that the revisionary right seems to be painting their base as the populist voters. In a week when the populists tried to get control of the Liberal Party, the most recent poll showed:

      * a return in the populist One Nation primary vote from a high of 9% to a more natural 7%. This is about the level it’s spent in the last few months when the coalition vote has been relatively high. But:
      * a drop in the coalition’s primary vote from the high 30s to 33%.

      They have not both been relatively low together during the polling of this term. Consequently, we have also seen:

      * a drop in the coalition two-party preferred from 49% to an astonishingly low 56%.

      If there was populist sentiment in the electorate, you would have expected to see the dismayed electorate plant their vote with One Nation. But instead, the minor parties didn’t profit from this. Greens and Other stayed about the same, and One Nation dropped. The sole beneficiary has been Labor. It sounds like a request for more stable government.

      On other subjects I think these events firm me up in my belief that the Liberal and National parties are two separate parties. We have once again a crossbench National. And they constantly seemed to be treating each other as different parties. When talking about electoral strength counting the LNP as a separate party (or as the Liberals in Queensland as their official status is) might make sense, but when talking about parliamentry strength they should be divided by how they sit, not how they stood.

      • So the Coalition is a three party coalition pretending to be a single party majority government. Voters are going to vote for Labor for stability, the previous Labor government threw Prime Ministers out as well as the Liberals.

        “from 49% to an astonishingly low 56%” Don’t you mean 46%?

        Will the next election produce a minority government? Will that be more stable than majority government? How many seats will the Third Parties, Greens, and Independents will win?

      • I’d count federal Liberals and Nationals as “one and a half parties”. The Nationals may cross the floor on individual legislative changes (eg, the recent inquiry into banking, which has uncovered some very dirty laundry), but they won’t on supply and confidence. Individual Nationals (or an entire State branch in the case of Western Australia) are just not going to ally with Labor on supply and confidence these days. Even in WA, despite some coyness after the 2008 election when they held the balance of power, the Nationals eventually opted to support Colin Barnett’s Liberals, which was about as surprising as Meg Ryan choosing Tom Hanks in a rom-com.
        heck, here in Queensland the two are one single party in State elections, State Parliament, and federal elections – but NOT in federal parliament. Queensland voters elect “LNP” candidates to the House and Senate, and once they arrive in Canberra they self-sort between the “Liberal” and the “National” caucuses. That is hard to reconcile with “two separate parties”. But then the WA Division’s behaviour is hard to reconcile with “one single party”. So I’d go with “1.5”.

  8. Harry is right. Evidently I typed the Labor 2PP instead of the Coalition.

    As for next election – To me the polls look like the displeasure has sent them to Labor, not Others. (Comparison: after Labor kicked out their prime minister again, the Coalition got a comfortable majority.) And I somehow don’t really believe the results. They seem more like expressing anger and displeasure in the best available method. If you want your voice heard by politicians, be polled and say “not the government”.

    Which seats would even be well suited to falling to an other in this context? I could only believe another Centre Alliance MP in SA.

  9. Meanwhile there is a state by-election for the NSW electorate of Wagga Wagga. It does not look like awfully good news for the Liberals, who, on early figures, are running third on first preferences in a seat they have held since 1957 and where they are defending a margin of 12.9%.

      • …although it’s worth noting that the Wagga by-election took place after the resignation of a MP who was involved in a property development scandal, and there was a slight first preference swing against Labor (it seems most likely the seat will go to an Independent)

  10. The by-election in Wentworth, the seat vacated by the former prime minister, happened over the weekend. Counting remains close, but the results suggest sacking Turnbull was not the most popular move the Liberals have ever made.

  11. The Victorian state election today returned a landslide for Labor. This maintains a trend that must be a tad worrying for the federal Coalition. A NSW election is due on 23 March. Labor will not go into that election with the same advantages as in recent by-elections and Victoria. There’s been some speculation the Coalition will call a federal election before NSW.

    • Victoria is also one of only two states (WA is the other) to still use group tickets for the upper house. As a result, under a nominal PR system, the Greens may well secure 1 of 40 seats with ~10% of the vote, while the Transport Matters party may win two with 0.6%. Around ten seats are likely to go to microparties with less than 5% of the vote in their district, although relatively high rates of voting below the line (BTL votes in Victoria are optional preferential) may derail some of them.

  12. I made a post on 22/11/2018on the “A list order change under Australian Senate rules” thread, but it is still waiting in moderation for some reason. I repeat it below:

    “The Victorian election is on Saturday. I will make one prediction: the micro-parties will get double the Legislative Council votes and seats of the Greens.

    “The Greens will be outraged that yet again they have been deprived of the balance of power in a democratic vote and demand that the voting system be changed to stop the micro-party voters from being represented – as we will see in the next half-Senate election they have done with the Senate.

    “The softening up process has already begun:
    https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/below-the-line-how-to-make-the-most-of-your-preferences-20181117-p50gok.html and

    “I have been playing around with the ABC’s election calculator (https://www.abc.net.au/news/elections/vic-election-2018/guide/calculator-upper/), putting in various numbers. No matter how many different percentages I try, a micro-party wins in every region, and the Greens lose some seats they currently hold.

    “While I support group voting tickets in principle, there is a political argument too: the Victorian ALP does not want the Greens to have the balance of power and has used its tickets in four elections now to stop that happening, so it is unlikely to fall for their campaign after the election.”

    My prediction was a bit off: the micros did better than I expected the greens did far worse. However, I was right about the outrage.

    I have recorded the votes in Legislative Council regions from the ABC website yesterday (https://www.abc.net.au/news/elections/vic-election-2018/results/emet/):
    Eastern Metropolitan
    Labor 39.11
    Coalition 34.55
    Greens 9.24
    Micros 17.10 (TMP won with 20.28 cf Greens on 9.7)

    Eastern Victoria
    Labor 34.81
    Coalition 33.17
    Greens 7.00
    Micros 25.02 (Aussie Battler won with 20.27 after preferences, cf Coalition* on 16.75 and SFF on 12.98)

    Northern Metropolitan
    Labor 45.23
    Coalition 15.01
    Greens 15.76
    Micros 24.00 (DHJP won with 18.51 after preferences, cf ALP* on 16.48 and Coalition on 15.01)

    Northern Victoria
    Labor 32.48
    Coalition 30.78
    Greens 6.88
    Micros 29.86 (LD won with 20.59 after preferences, cf ALP on 16.09, DHJP on 15.87 and Coalition on 14.11; then DHJP won on 19.80, cf ALP* on 16.09 and Coalition on 14.11)

    South-Eastern Metropolitan
    Labor 52.71
    Coalition 26.90
    Greens 5.61
    Micros 14.78 (TMP won with 23.1 cf Coalition on 10.23)

    Southern Metropolitan
    Labor 37.58
    Coalition 35.58
    Greens 13.24
    Micros 13.60 (SA won with 19.62, cf Greens on 13.72)

    Western Metropolitan
    Labor 47.88
    Coalition 20.18
    Greens 9.2
    Micros 22.74 (DHJP won with 19.57 after preferences, cf DLP on 13.76)

    Western Victoria
    Labor 39.2
    Coalition 29.28
    Greens 7.44
    Micros 24.08 (AJP won with 20.28 after preferences, cf Coalition on 12.61, DHJP* on 9.44 and SFF on 7.67; DHJP won with 187.3 cf Coalition on 12.61)

    (* also won later)

    The average vote for micro-parties was 18.52, so it is not surprising that they won at least one seat in every region.

  13. Spills and chills… Henry, to be pedantic, 50% of those States that have ever used any form of above-the-line group voting – 2 out of 3 – still use full-preferential group ticket voting; only two States (NSW and SA) have used it and then abandoned it (if we focus on STV-PR systems and so put aside (a) the brief experiment with a preferential party-list system in Canberra, 1989-92 and (b) the single-member “disguised” voting-ticket system used for South Australian Assembly).
    However, if we count heads rather than States, now that Commonwealth and New South Wales have moved to “optional-preferential group voting” for their upper houses, that’s 13 million voters who use that method at least once and 5-6 million who use it twice, as opposed to just under 4 million who still use full-preferential group ticket voting.

      • Also, in Victoria a below-the-line ballot is valid as long as at least 5 candidates (N = district magnitude) are marked.
        Which leaves WA as the only jurisdiction left to use full-preferential Group Ticket voting in all its glory, with the Hobson’s choice of a single “1” above the line or numbering (accurately, without any numbers repeated or omitted) every single candidate below the line.
        Group Ticket voting was sold as a solution to numbering large numbers of candidates individually back in the innocent days of the 1980s when “large number” meant 30 or 40. Its very presence caused that number to balloon, which is why it’s now been replaced with “Group-Preferential” voting in three of the five.
        if I supported full-preferential “one in the box” ticket voting – which I don’t, but if I did – I’d make the criterion for lodging a ticket “every registered party, whether running candidates or not” rather than “every team group of two or more candidates (whether endorsed by a party or not) or any incumbent Senator seeking re-election”. This might reverse the impetus for the number of below-line squares to inflate. Minor parties wanting to direct their 78th and 79th preferences to candidates their supporters have never heard of would (assuming one thinks this is a good thing) make like the US Liberals in New York State and just lodge a “fusion” ticket, instead of having to run two candidates. They should of course be free to run warm bodies below the line as well, if they want, but they should have to consider the risk of losing their deposit if they clutter the ballot frivolously.
        “Cluttering the ballot” can mean other people’s votes are wasted de jure under full-preferential voting (set aside as invalid because they inadvertently voted 78, 78 or 78, 80 instead of 77, 78) or wasted de facto under non-preferential voting (ie, Nader Raiders and Literal Democrats splitting the vote). “Offering voters more choice” is not endlessly costless.

  14. The Liberals changed the rules for leadership selection. It will now take two thirds of the parliamentary caucus to overthrow a sitting PM, per the ABC. While many say this change, and a similar Labor change made during as Rudd left the leadership, will lead to greater stability, I disagree. To me it has reduced the Australian House of Representatives to a virtual electoral college for one day of its term and an echo chamber for the other thousand or so days. While seemingly, and pretty much actually, unstable, Australian prime ministers needed to have the active support and confidence of their parliaments. Now they simply need to win enough seats at an election/

    • The rules for electing party leaders have no impact on the constitutional convention that the prime minister must possess the confidence of the house of representatives. The house can vote no confidence whether the prime minister is leader of a party or not. In 1972 McMahon supporters threatened, if he were not made leader, to vote against the prime minister in the house.

      The constitution is unchanged. The constitutional conventions are unchanged.

      • The convention that the Prime Minister must retain the confidence of his own caucus is now gone, as he can carry on with the support of as little as 35% of the party room. The convention that he must command a majority of the House is now strained. A government with 76 members in the House and another 30 in the Senate can now carry on even if only 36 members of the party room back him. In other words a PM with 74 members on the opposition benches and 40 members of his own backbench against him can soldier on as long as the backbench doesn’t feel like knifing itself in the back by crossing the aisle.

      • There never was a constitutional convention that the prime minister enjoy the support of their own caucus. The only relevant convention is that the prime minister enjoy the confidence of the house.

      • Yep, see for example the 2015 Country Liberal leadership spill, where incumbent Chief Minister Adam Giles was defeated by William Westra van Holthe, but refused to resign his office and claimed he hadn’t lost the confidence of the House, and as such the NT Administrator didn’t appoint Van Holthe as Chief Minister. Giles’ actions were clearly unusual, but they demonstrate that confidence of the House is the relevant convention. It’s also pretty established convention that MPs from a party are willing to accept a leader elected in accordance with party rules. Malcolm Turnbull, for example, didn’t have the backing of a majority of the House of Representatives in 2015 if you consider pro-Abbott and Labor members to be against him, but he had no trouble holding the confidence of the House.

  15. It is such a relief that there is a leadership crisis and for once it is not in Canberra or Sydney.

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