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'Coup capital'

21 September 2015

What makes Australia such a uniquely difficult place for leaders to keep their positions, asks Dr Anika Gauja.

By Вени Марковски | Veni Markovski (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Image: Veni Markovski

When Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged incumbent Tony Abbott for the leadership of the governing Liberal Party, he became the fifth Australian prime minister to hold office in as many years.

Leadership churn in Australian politics is so regular that major news agencies across the world have described Australia as the “coup capital of the world,” the prime ministership as a “revolving door” and this latest challenge as like “a motorway crash on a fine day.”

So what is happening down under?

News media commentators tend to explain leadership churn as the product of individual ambition and parties trying to get ahead in the polls. But politicians are ambitious everywhere, and all political parties want to win elections. So what makes Australia, a developed democracy with a stable economy, such a uniquely difficult place for leaders to keep their positions?

As part of an international project run by Jean Benoit Pilet and William Cross, I studied how Australian political parties select their leaders and how this has changed over the last half century. The results of the Australian study – and how they compare to findings about other parliamentary democracies in North America and Europe – help us understand the leadership volatility we saw this week.

The study looked at all party leaders, not just prime ministers. The public pays more attention when the ousted leader is also in charge of government, but under Australia’s constitutional system of government the prime minister gets no special treatment. He or she is prime minister only because he or she leads the party that holds the majority of the seats in parliament. If he or she loses the support of the parliamentary party, the party leadership (and the prime ministership) are both up for grabs at the same time.

Australia’s party factions are challenging their leaders more often

One of the most striking findings of my research is that national leadership challenges are becoming more common. This means that party leaders have much shorter tenure than they used to. In the 1960s, the average tenure of an Australian party leader was 10 years. By the 1980s this had declined to four years. Between 2000-2012, it was just 2.4 years.

This may be because factions (organized intra-party groupings) are more important than they used to be. In Australian party politics, factions not only reflect policy and ideological differences within political parties, but they also help distribute leadership positions. Scholars, such as Francoise Boucek, argue that factions can be a positive force, institutionalizing different opinions and hence stabilizing the party. But that can quickly turn to disunity, particularly when party rules empower these fractious groups to distribute material rewards (such as coveted parliamentary positions) to loyal supporters.

But it’s not just Australia. Party politics is changing in all democracies.

However, the study also shows that the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon in Australian party leadership isn’t all that different from what’s happening in other parliamentary democracies. Across all 13 countries included in the analysis, the average length of a party leader’s tenure declined from eight years in the 1960s, to just over three years between 2000 and 2012. William Cross shows that the average tenure of a party leader in Canada has declined during this period from 12 years to three years.

This suggests that while domestic factors (such as the role of factions) might play a role in unseating leaders, something bigger is changing across countries. I have found in other research that the nature of party politics is changing. Citizens are less engaged with formal political institutions; are more likely to use social media and act as citizen reporters and run their own issue campaigns; are more educated and likely to be more critical of, and less loyal to, parties.

In other words, representative politics is changing in ways that make being party leader more challenging.

Still, Australia is different.

The big difference between Australia and other democracies is in how party leaders are selected. Political parties in democratic countries have been gradually shifting to choosing their leaders in more inclusive ways. Pilet and Cross showed that 80 percent of parties covered by the study selected their leader through either a vote of elected party delegates (51 percent), a vote of all party members (27 percent) or an open primary (3 percent).

In contrast, the leaders of Australian political parties have historically been chosen and removed by the party’s elected members of parliament. This is still the case for three major parties in Australia — the Liberal, National and Green parties. It was – until 2012 — the only method of selection in the Australian Labor Party. (Under reforms introduced by former prime minister Kevin Rudd that were designed to ‘shore up’ his leadership, the Labor parliamentary party group can now elect to give ordinary party members a 50 percent share in the vote for party leader).

This isn’t as exclusive as allowing the party leader to choose his or her successor, but it is still a very exclusive way to remove or select a leader. Around 100 people participated in the vote to elect Malcolm Turnbull. In comparison, the first Australian Labor Party leadership selection contest conducted under the new rules in 2013, saw 30,000 members participating in the election that chose Bill Shorten as leader.

While it may not be particularly inclusive, allowing the parliamentary party group to select the leader gives parties the flexibility to remove their leaders at any time and appoint replacements quickly. As much of the groundwork establishing support is done behind the scenes, leadership contests in Australian routinely take no more than a few hours. This is very different from the recent British Labour leadership election that elected Jeremy Corbyn, which took over four months to organize.

The label “coup capital” of the world may not be entirely accurate, but the recent Australian leadership instability isn’t a simple result of personalities and polls. Instead, it’s the product of the rules parties use to select their leaders; the dominance of factions within Australian parties; and broader political trends that are changing the nature of citizens’ engagement with parties and representative institutions in Australia but in other democracies, too.

Dr Anika Gauja is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. This article was first published in The Washington Post

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

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