In Australian politics, a leadership spill (or simply spill) is a declaration that the leadership of a parliamentary party (also known as a caucus) 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. Where a rival to the existing leader calls for a spill, it may also be called a leadership challenge.
When a leadership vacancy arises due to the voluntary resignation or death of the incumbent, the resulting leadership election is not a leadership spill. Therefore, the 1968 Liberal Party of Australia leadership election after the disappearance of Harold Holt was not a leadership spill, despite the contest involving four candidates.
A leadership spill may result in a new hierarchy, or may confirm the status quo. If the party in question is in government, the election of a new leader will result in a new Prime Minister, Premier or Chief Minister; if the party is the opposition, the election of a new leader will result in a new Opposition Leader.
There were 72 leadership spills between 1970 and 2015; the phenomenon became increasingly common in the early 21st century. None occurred in the 1960s, 10 in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, 13 in the 1990s, and 31 between 2000 and 2015. Spills are three times more likely to occur when a party is in opposition compared to when it holds government. The frequent leadership spills and political instability in the 21st century – which saw five changes of Prime Ministers between 2010 and 2018 – has led to Australia being dubbed "coup capital of the democratic world".
In the Westminster system of government, the leader of the party which forms government becomes the Prime Minister, while the leader of the largest party not in government becomes leader of the Opposition. Contenders for the role of leader of a major party usually (but not always) come from the cabinet or shadow cabinet.
A leadership spill occurs when a member or members of the parliamentary party feel that the leader is taking the party in an undesirable direction or is simply not delivering on promises made to those who elected the leader, and does not have the numbers to back his or her position. A spill may be triggered by consistently poor opinion polls.
A spill can be initiated by the party leader in office, usually in the hope of gaining a fresh mandate to quell dissenting voices in the party. It may occur at any time, leaving the person in the leadership position always 'on notice'.
Following his return to the leadership of the Australian Labor Party in 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sought changes to the party's rules so that leadership spills would be more difficult to launch in future. The changes included the requirement for 75% support within the Australian Labor Party Caucus for a special leadership ballot against a sitting Labor prime minister, or 60% against an opposition leader. Another change was that future leadership ballots would include equally weighted voting rights between the caucus and party rank and file members with each block being counted separately and worth 50% of the total.
The rule that a Labor prime minister can only be removed if 75 per cent of MPs agree to force a ballot (or 60 per cent of caucus for an opposition leader) is a caucus-approved rule and was not included in the 2018 National Platform.
Following the oustings of two Liberal Prime Ministers in 3 years, Scott Morrison, who won the leadership spill of 24 August 2018 introduced a new threshold to trigger a Liberal Party leadership change in government, requiring two-thirds of the partyroom vote to trigger a spill motion. The change was introduced at an hour long party room meeting on the evening of 3 December 2018. Morrison said the changes, which were drafted with feedback from former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, would only apply to leaders who lead the party to victory at a federal election.
Historically, a governing party's replacement of its leader fails to improve its electoral fortunes. Across state and federal politics between 1970 and 2014, over 90% of governing parties that replaced their leader lost their majority at the subsequent election. The chances of success are higher when the party is in opposition, leading to success at the subsequent election about 50% of the time.
The following spill motions occurred during a parliamentary term, rather than in the aftermath of an election loss. Colours denote the party holding the leadership spill motion. Blue represents the Liberal Party, red the Labor Party, and green the National Party.
|2 March 1931||Labor||Government||James Scullin||During the 1931 Labor Party split, Prime Minister James Scullin was challenged by Jack Beasley of the Lang Labor faction, winning by 40 votes to five with seven abstentions.|
|27 April 1966||Labor||Opposition||Arthur Calwell||Calwell defeated Whitlam by 49 votes to 25 after promising to resign if Labor did not win the November 1966 federal election.|
|30 April 1968||Labor||Opposition||Gough Whitlam||Whitlam called a spill after conflict with the National Executive. He defeated Cairns by 38 votes to 32.|
|10 March 1971||Liberal||Government||John Gorton||Prime Minister John Gorton had faced a leadership challenge in November 1969 and prevailed. At the vote, he retained the leadership of the Liberal Party after a leadership spill resulted in a 33-33 tie. However, Gorton then resigned, saying that a tie was not a vote of confidence. He did not contest the ensuing ballot, and McMahon defeated Snedden to become his successor.|
|31 May 1977||Labor||Opposition||Gough Whitlam||Whitlam defeated Hayden by 32 votes to 30.|
|8 April 1982||Liberal||Government||Malcolm Fraser||Fraser beat Peacock's challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party, 54–27 votes.|
|16 July 1982||Labor||Opposition||Bill Hayden||Hayden beat Hawke to retain the leadership of the Labor Party, 42–37 but resigned in February 1983 in Hawke's favor, just one month before the ALP returned to government in the 1983 federal election.|
|9 May 1989||Liberal||Opposition||John Howard||Peacock won the Liberal leadership with 44 votes to Howard's 27, becoming leader for the second time.|
|9 May 1989||National||Opposition (coalition with Liberal Party)||Ian Sinclair||A simultaneous spill took place in the National Party room, resulting in Charles Blunt replacing Ian Sinclair.|
|3 June 1991||Labor||Government||Bob Hawke||Following Hawke's failure to honour the Kirribilli Agreement of 1988 in which he promised to hand over the Labor leadership to Keating, Keating challenged Hawke. He lost by 44 votes to Hawke's 66. He resigned to the backbench.|
|20 December 1991||Labor||Government||Bob Hawke||
||With Hawke's public support having fallen to record lows, Keating launched a second leadership challenge. That effort was successful, with Keating winning the Labor leadership by 5 votes, 56-51. The ballot papers for both 1991 spills were preserved by the returning officer and are kept by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.|
|23 May 1994||Liberal||Opposition||John Hewson||Downer won 43 votes against Hewson's 36 votes for the Liberal party leadership, with Peter Costello elected unopposed to replace Michael Wooldridge as deputy.|
|16 June 2003||Labor||Opposition||Simon Crean||Crean defeated Beazley's challenge 58-34.|
|2 December 2003||Labor||Opposition||Simon Crean||
||Following a poor poll performance, Crean was urged to step down by senior colleagues. He agreed to do so on 28 November 2003. The ballot was held on Tuesday 2 December in which Latham defeated Beazley by a margin of two votes (47-45).|
|4 December 2006||Labor||Opposition||Kim Beazley||
||Labor frontbencher Kevin Rudd launched a challenge against Beazley, prompting Beazley to call a spill for all leadership positions within the party. Rudd won the Labor leadership 49-39.|
|16 September 2008||Liberal||Opposition||Brendan Nelson||Turnbull succeeded in his challenge to Nelson, 45-41.|
|1 December 2009||Liberal||Opposition||Malcolm Turnbull||On 26 November 2009, following division within the Liberal-National coalition about carbon emissions trading, Kevin Andrews moved a spill motion against Turnbull's leadership, which was defeated by a vote of 48 to 35.
Abbott announced on 27 November—one day after Turnbull survived Kevin Andrews' spill motion—that he would challenge Turnbull for the leadership. Abbott committed to withdrawing his candidacy if Joe Hockey was to challenge. He changed his position after Hockey refused to oppose an emissions trading scheme outright and suggested a conscience vote on the Rudd Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Hockey was eliminated in the first round of voting. Abbott defeated Turnbull with a narrow margin of 42–41 votes.
|24 June 2010||Labor||Government||Kevin Rudd||
||First term Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was replaced by his deputy Julia Gillard, months prior to the 2010 federal election.|
|27 February 2012||Labor||Government||Julia Gillard||
||Kevin Rudd resigned as Foreign Minister seeking to overturn the 2010 spill result but Julia Gillard retained the Labor leadership with 71 votes to Rudd's 31. Rudd moved to the backbench.|
|21 March 2013||Labor||Government||Julia Gillard||
||Julia Gillard called a snap ballot following Simon Crean publicly calling for a Labor leadership ballot. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed not to stand in the challenge, and as a result Julia Gillard was re-elected unopposed.|
|26 June 2013||Labor||Government||Julia Gillard||
||Rudd retook the Labor Party leadership in a snap spill, defeating Julia Gillard by a 57–45 margin. Gillard resigned from Parliament at the subsequent 2013 federal election in which the Rudd's Government was defeated by Abbott's Coalition.|
|9 February 2015||Liberal||Government||Tony Abbott||
||A motion to bring about a leadership spill in the Liberal Party was defeated 61–39, with Tony Abbott remaining as Prime Minister.|
|14 September 2015||Liberal||Government||Tony Abbott||
||Turnbull defeated Prime Minister Tony Abbott, 54 votes to 44. A second ballot the same evening saw Julie Bishop re-elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, 70 votes to 30 over Kevin Andrews.|
|21 August 2018||Liberal||Government||Malcolm Turnbull||Turnbull defeated Dutton, 48 votes to 35. Julie Bishop re-elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party unopposed. Dutton resigned as Home Affairs Minister.|
|24 August 2018||Liberal||Government||Malcolm Turnbull||Scott Morrison defeats Peter Dutton, 45 votes to 40. Julie Bishop was defeated and eliminated in the first round of voting. Then-Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, did not run for the leadership position once the spill was declared.|
|5 September 2008||Labor||Government||Morris Iemma||In the aftermath of an unsuccessful attempt to privatise the electricity system and party factional leaders blocking his proposed cabinet reshuffle, Iemma resigned after a challenge in the Labor party room from Nathan Rees. Rees and his deputy Carmel Tebbutt were unanimously endorsed by the caucus.|
|3 December 2009||Labor||Government||Nathan Rees||Keneally defeated Rees 47 votes to 21, becoming New South Wales's first female Premier and retaining Carmel Tebbutt as deputy in the first female leadership team in Australia. Rees accused her of being a puppet of factional leaders Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Frank Sartor.|
|13 March 2013||Country Liberal||Government||Terry Mills||The spill was called while Mills was on a trade mission to Japan, less than a year after he had led the party from opposition to victory in the 2012 election, winning 16 of 25 seats. Giles won the ballot 11–5, becoming the first indigenous head of government of an Australian state or territory. He made Dave Tollner the new Deputy Chief Minister.|
|2 February 2015||Country Liberal||Government||Adam Giles||
||The CLP party room voted to oust Adam Giles 9 votes to 5 and replace him with Westra van Holthe, who Giles had replaced as Deputy Chef Minister following the previous leadership spill. However, since a Westra van Holthe-led minority government would lack sufficient parliamentary support without Giles and his supporters, Giles refused to resign. The crisis was settled a day later, when Giles agreed to promote Westra van Holthe to the position of Deputy Chief Minister.|
|23 April 2015||Labor||Opposition||Delia Lawrie||
||On 15 April 2015, Lawrie lost the support of her party room following criticism of her conduct during an inquiry into a property deal undertaken while she was a minister. On 19 April 2015, Gunner announced he would stand for the leadership against Lawrie, who was refusing to resign. Four days later, Lawrie resigned and Gunner was elected unopposed as leader, avoiding the need for a five-week ballot process involving rank and file members as well as parliamentarians under the ALP's updated leadership rules.|
|26 November 1987||National||Government||Joh Bjelke-Petersen||
||In the aftermath of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Bjelke-Petersen had lost his authority in the party room. He refused numerous requests for a party meeting, but the party's management committee called one for 26 November. At the meeting, a spill motion carried by a margin of 38-9. Bjelke-Petersen boycotted the meeting and so did not nominate for the ensuing leadership vote, which saw Ahern elected as the new leader and Bill Gunn elected deputy.|
|6 May 2016||Liberal National||Opposition||Lawrence Springborg||Following months of speculation about his leadership, Springborg called a leadership spill. In the first round, he received 17 votes to 14 for Tim Nicholls and 10 for Tim Mander. In the second round, Nicholls defeated Springborg 22 to 19. John-Paul Langbroek also stood down as Deputy Leader, with Deb Frecklington elected unopposed to replace him.|
|27 November 1996||Liberal||Government||Dean Brown||Brown was beaten by John Olsen for the leadership of the South Australian Liberals, despite having taken them to a landslide victory in the 1993 state election.|
|11 April 2007||Liberal||Opposition||Iain Evans||Amidst poor polling Martin Hamilton-Smith defeated opposition leader Iain Evans by 13 votes to 10 for the SA Liberal leadership. Evans had become Opposition Leader only on 31 March 2006 in a "dream team" with former rival Vickie Chapman following the Liberals' loss in the 2006 election.|
|4 July 2009||Liberal||Opposition||Martin Hamilton-Smith||Hamilton-Smith defeated his deputy 11-10, with former leader Iain Evans abstaining from the vote. Isobel Redmond was elected to the deputy leadership to replace Chapman.|
|8 July 2009||Liberal||Opposition||Martin Hamilton-Smith||Hamilton-Smith called another leadership spill to take place on 8 July 2009, in an attempt to gain a more decisive mandate, but announced he would not run two days before the spill. Chapman ran again for the leadership but was defeated 13-9 by Redmond. Steven Griffiths was elected deputy leader by 8 votes to 6 for Mitch Williams.|
|21 October 2011||Labor||Government||Mike Rann||Three-term premier Rann was forced by party operatives to step down in favour of Weatherill to maximise the party's chances of victory in the 2014 state election, which angered Rann but was presented to the public as a smooth transition that avoided a confrontation and party room vote.|
|6 March 2013||Liberal||Government||Ted Baillieu||First term Liberal premier Baillieu resigned and was replaced by Denis Napthine after the controversial backbencher Geoff Shaw resigned from the Liberal Party, depriving it of a majority in the Victorian Parliament. Baillieu was told by members of his Government that he had lost the support of his party room. Politicians differed in their views on whether the event was a leadership spill or a voluntary resignation.|
|12 February 1990||Labor||Government||Peter Dowding||In the midst of the WA Inc scandal, on 7 February 1990 a majority of the parliamentary Labor Party called for the resignation of Dowding, who was overseas at the time. At the subsequent cabinet meeting, Dowding and his deputy David Parker resigned. Dowding was replaced by Lawrence, with Ian Taylor as her deputy. Lawrence became Australia's first female premier and additionally held the portfolios of Treasurer, Minister for Public Sector Management, Women's Interests, Family, Aboriginal Affairs and Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs.|
|15 March 2016||Labor||Opposition||Mark McGowan||After Smith expressed doubts that McGowan could win an election and indicated his interest in leading the WA Labor Party, the shadow cabinet and parliamentary caucus unanimously passed a motion supporting McGowan and ordering Smith to withdraw, which led him to abandon his challenge. There was speculation that a number of key backers pulled their support under pressure from state unions.|
|20 September 2016||Liberal||Government||Colin Barnett||
||Following recent resignations from Cabinet by Transport Minister Dean Nalder and Local Government Minister Tony Simpson, a motion to spill the leadership of the WA Liberal Party was brought by backbencher Murray Cowper. It was defeated 31 votes to 15. Nalder, who would have nominated against Barnett if the spill motion had passed, promised not to launch future leadership challenges.|
An episode of the American TV series Madam Secretary, The Common Defense featured a fictional Australian Prime Minister and one of the main characters Jay Whitman (Sebastian Arcelus) commented that Australia throws Prime Ministers out like confetti.
The episode was originally aired on March 24, 2019 and it is an allusion to the real life frequency of Prime Ministers between 2010 and 2018 as a result of leadership spills against the sitting Prime Minister.
The word spill in this sense is an Australian English term, and has a long history, being first recorded in 1945...
Should Mr. Makin be selected [as High Commissioner to London] his place in Cabinet will not be filled because it will become unnecessary and this will thwart some of the more ambitious younger members of the party who attempted at a recent Caucus meeting in Canberra to secure a 'spill' of Ministerial positions in the hope that the new ballot would throw them into the Cabinet. However, the 'spill' did not take place, so some of them have been campaigning for the appointment of assistant Ministers to some of the harder worked senior Ministers.
With five prime ministers in as many years, Canberra has solidified its reputation as the coup capital of the democratic world.
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,' [...].