Any partisan can list the arguments as to why the recent turmoil in the federal parliamentary Liberal Party was the fault of a certain individual. A good case can be made to principally blame Malcolm Turnbull or Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison or Tony Abbott or others. Peter Costello’s memoirs are very convincing that it was an injustice he wasn’t elect parliamentary leader in 2005 … and John Howard makes an equally strong case in his memoirs that he acted honourably at all times.
Bitter party room wars are not a new phenomenon. The spectre of leadership destabilisation has hovered around the federal leader of the non-Labor side of politics for around one in three years since 1901.
One of Australia’s greatest prime ministers, Joe Lyons, died of a heart attack in the middle of a party room war with Robert Menzies in 1939.
Harold Holt’s close friend (Billy Snedden) believed an impending party room war put Harold Holt off balance which lead to his drowning.
The worst of all party room wars culminated in a tied ballot between John Gorton and Billy McMahon in 1971 which shattered our greatest period in government and paved the way for Whitlamism. Tom Hughes (Malcolm Turnbull’s father in law) attacked Malcolm Fraser at John Gorton’s funeral (while Fraser was in the pews) three decades after 1971. (click here)
So while its not new it is getting more frequent. A party room ballot for leader is like an old car well past its used by date … and increasingly suffering one breakdown after another.
It is myopic to blame the individual players for this dysfunction. It’s time the Liberal Party lifted its gaze to the bigger picture. All the players in the party room wars are captive to an archaic method of electing our parliamentary leader. This 19th century practice is not just giving us unstable and faulty government. The extreme ill will that is an inescapable by-product of a party room ballot fractures the parliamentary party and the wider party organisation.
There is a solution. The federal council of the Liberal Party of Australia needs to ratify new rules that will give all party members from Bondi to Broome a vote for our federal parliamentary leader. Most politically interested Australians are surprised to learn that membership wide ballots for leader are the Westminster norm in the 21st century. The party structure outlined in this book will set the Liberal Party up for a century of political dominance just as the non-Labor side of politics dominated the 20th century.
By looking at the experience of similar political parties in the UK, US and Canada the book argues for:
Membership elections of state and federal parliamentary leaders via a national convention
Membership election of senate and upper house candidates via state and territory conventions
Primaries that invite the Liberal Party supporting public to cast a vote for our state and federal candidates for lower house seats