My Two Cents: Cleaning up after the ‘Spill’

Since 1971, there have been 17 Leadership spills – 12 have been successful (I.e. the leader of the party changed), 5 were unsuccessful; between both major parties – the Liberal Party of Australia (LPA) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

When it comes to spilled milk, there is no use crying over it; but this article will discuss the ‘watermark’ which spill motions have left on Australian Politics.

Spill Motion;

In Australian politics, a leadership spill is a declaration that the leadership of a Parliamentary party is vacant, and open for re-election. A spill may involve all leadership positions (Leader and Deputy Leader in both houses), or just the Leader.

Leadership spills have happened more times than I first thought. However there have been 7 in the last 7 years (since 2008), which leaves 10 ‘spills’ in 26 years before that (1971-2007). Off those figures, you could deduce that spills have gone from being every 2.6 years, to being (on average) every year.

So spills are not a recent phenomenon.

I observed some repeat offenders:

Kevin Rudd (ALP) was involved in 6 Leadership spills – (2006 – 2013)

Julia Gillard (ALP) in 5 – (2010-2013)

Bob Hawke (ALP) in 3 – (1982, 2 in 1991)

Paul Keating (ALP) in 2 – (both 1991)

Malcolm Turnbull (LPA) in 2 – (2008, 2009)

Some are more ‘Party’ to the occasional spill, too:

6 of the 17 spills were within the LPA (~ 35%)

11 of the 17 spills were within the ALP (~ 65%)
Source: Leadership Spill


My Analysis:

There is no simple ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’, right or wrong. Spills seem to evoke a set situational (read: circumstantial) ethics, and the success or failure of a leader becomes highly subjective.

While political parties are viewed as a whole, there is rarely (or never) a complete consensus on all issues; because no two people are exactly the same, and will not have exactly the same perspective or values.


Politics is an industry starched with self-interest – getting people to like you, in order to vote for you; and liking yourself enough to promote yourself (on the basis of the political party you represent, or specific issues/values; or both). Someone who challenges a leader in a spill Motion would have to be fairly confident that they are the best leadership alternative for the Party, and be convinced that enough people in the party like them enough to vote for them, and that the general public would re-elect them (Like Julia Gillard for example).


Publicity can be used by an individual as an attention-seeking measure for self-promotion, or to detract from another. Publicity is a zero-sum game.
(I.e. Person A gets good publicity to the detriment of Person B, in the form of negative or reduced press coverage.)

*cough* Kevin Rudd *cough*


The leader of the party fails to unify the Party behind a specific policy (Malcolm Turnbull, the ETS/Climate Change), or Party Leader making non-consultative (*cough* Tony Abbott *cough*) autonomous policy decisions.


My Opinion:

Federal politicians in Australia represent thousands of people in their electorate; spill motions are not always initiated with the best interests of the electorate in mind. They balance on the fine line between mandate (/policy platform on which they were elected, the ‘faith’ of the majority of people in their electorate) and personal motive (/self-interest). The leadership of Australia is determined on Election Day, not in a sound-proofed party room.

While spill motions are legitimate and ‘legal’, they should not be considered standard operating procedure. But what are MPs to do when a leader is really making a mess? Wait around for a landslide defeat? It is a bit of a conundrum.

But even deeper, runs the question –

Should our MPs be loyal to their leader or their electorate first? Who is more important?

Therein the above conundrum, lays the problem. The interests of the Party and the whole electorate are not the same, because only the majority (not all!) of the electorate voted for an MP.

Candidates need people in their electorate to vote for them, wealthy (Major) political parties can provide the money (from private sector, private donors and unions etc.) for leverage (marketing and advertising); but it is the blessed hand of endorsement from these Parties that a would-be MP would aspire for. Once endorsed or pre-selected, the masses can be actively leveraged to vote for a specific person. The whole analogy likens Australian voters to cattle. We have forgotten that we the people ‘crack the whip’ and that we are conscious enough to make informed choices.

Australians should be voting for their local members, not for a Prime Minister. I feel like we miss the forest for the trees, when voting. Vote for the person that will/(or has?) done good for your local area – trees are made strong, and survive with a good root system below them, which sustains them. The bottom line is the grassroots still matter; Federal politicians need to be reminded of this. On Election Day, voters can give them a (metaphorical) ‘paper cut’ with their ballot papers. Ballot papers are feedback forms, fill them out accordingly (!)

Presently, to be a Politician is a full time job. It would not be possible for any Member of a State or Federal Parliament to successfully execute a full time job, simultaneous to the demands of their electorate, and any Ministerial kind of (also Shadow Ministry, and Parliamentary Secretary) role(s). The resultant are career Politicians; and it is an honourable vocation to represent a group of people on a grand scale, full time.

Voters can vote for an MP, but do they trust their judgement to elect or to replace leader in a spill motion?

Any organisation cannot function efficiently when there are leadership changes every few years. The frequency of Spill Motions is a worrying trend.

Australians shouldn’t cry over ‘spilled milk’; our Politicians should instead enjoy a ‘paper cut’ for the mess it has left on Australian politics.

One thought on “My Two Cents: Cleaning up after the ‘Spill’

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