Constitutional Questions Downunder

Parliament House, Canberra

I woke up this morning to find that Australia, for the time being, has no Prime Minister. The position is vacant following Julia Gillard’s resignation last night. For those of you unfamiliar with antipodean politics, our system is a hybrid “Washminster” system, fusing federal elements of the American system with the British concept of responsible government. The Australian Federal Parliament is bicameral (House of Representatives and Senate). The office of Australian Prime Minister is the apex of the executive structure, but is not directly elected by the Australian people. Citizens vote for Members of Parliament, and the leader of the political party with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives is appointed Prime Minister. Of course, Australians usually bear in mind the leader of each major political party (i.e. the contenders for the position of Prime Minister) when casting their ballots.

As a result of this system, it is possible for a change in Prime Minister to occur mid-term if the ruling Party decides to change leadership (historically, a rare occurrence). It was just such a change that made Julia Gillard Prime Minister in 2010, and today she has been deposed as Prime Minister by the same means.

Julia Gillard’s rise to the top job in Australian politics was tumultuous. Her party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), won the 2007 federal election under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat. The election was a landslide, ousting Prime Minister John Howard and his Coalition government after four terms in office. Rudd was duly appointed Prime Minister by the Governor-General (the Queen’s representative in the Commonwealth) and Gillard became Deputy Prime Minister. Three years later, following a dramatic decline in Kevin Rudd’s popularity and Party support, and just months before the next federal election, Australians awoke to the news that we had a new Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd had been ousted by the ALP, and Julia Gillard assumed leadership of the party and, therefore, of Australia. But that wasn’t the end of Rudd – he remained a Member of Parliament, and in the 2010 federal elections two months later he retained his seat. The ALP didn’t fare so well. The ALP and its opposition, the Liberal National Party, each won 72 seats in the 150 seat House of Representatives, resulting in a “hung parliament.” The ALP managed to form a “minority government” (i.e. dependent on the support of independent and minor party Members of Parliament or “crossbenchers”). Julia Gillard retained the ALP leadership, and continued as Prime Minister.

Another three years on, and the ALP has descended into disarray during Gillard’s term, described by one commentator as “the most poisonous, inglorious chapter in modern Labor Party history.” The last six months were marred by repeated rumors of a Rudd leadership challenge, successive political blunders by Gillard and her senior ministers, and, crucially, abysmal popularity ratings of both Gillard and the ALP. Time and again, Gillard has stared down questions about her capacity to lead the ALP into the next election, and the ALP has attempted to quash rumors of a Rudd comeback. Today, under mounting pressure and speculation, and in a bid to put the rumors to rest and lead a united ALP to the September elections, Gillard announced an ALP leadership ballot or “spill”, and was defeated by Kevin Rudd 57-45.

The change in ALP leadership raises some interesting Constitutional questions. Julia Gillard has resigned as leader of the ALP and Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd has been elected by the ALP as their leader, but this does not mean he automatically becomes Prime Minister. In this hung Parliament, Rudd needs the support of five of the seven cross-benchers to form a parliamentary majority and survive a vote of no-confidence should one be raised – four have declared their support thus far. Questions to be resolved: will the Opposition or a crossbencher raise a vote of no-confidence in the ALP government? If so, will Rudd have the necessary support to survive the vote? If he does not, will the Governor-General appoint the Opposition leader Prime Minister (assuming he has the necessary support in the House)? And of course the big question – how will the Australian public respond to these political shenanigans when they (compulsorily) head to the polls?

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