Prime ministerial power: the ‘Captain’s pick’

Factors that enhance the power of the prime prime minister discussed in the textbook (pages 212-219) are the exercise of patronage, allocation of ministerial portfolios and the prerogative of setting election dates.  Recent actions by prime minister, Julia Gillard, are evidence of the use of those powers.

‘The Captain’s pick’ – preselection

On 22 January 2013 prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced that she had made a ‘Captain’s pick’ to fast-track Nova Peris, a former Olympian who was not a member of the Labor Party, to be Labor Senate candidate for the Northern Territory (NT).  She asked the ALP’s National Executive to ensure that Nova was ‘eligible to stand for preselection and that she is preselected as our number one candidate for the Senate in the Northern Territory’. She said Nova’s selection was ‘a matter of national significance’ because it would be the first time that the Labor Party had ‘put forward an indigenous Australian in a winnable position at a federal election’ and it was time an indigenous woman should serve in the parliament (Gillard, J. 2013, ‘Transcript of Joint Press Conference: Prime Minister of Australia, Nova Peris, 22 January, http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/transcript-joint-press-conference-33).  Next day, ALP National Secretary, George Wright, announced that ‘Members of the ALP National Executive unanimously resolved to admit Nova Peris as a member of the NT Branch and credential Nova to stand for preselection for the first position on Labor’s Senate Ticket in the Northern Territory’ (smh.com.au 2013, ‘NT Senate preselection to go to ballot’, 23 January, http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/nt-senate-preselection-to-go-to-ballot’-20130123-2d6pu.html).  On 29 January the ALP National Executive formally endorsed Nova Peris as the party’s number 1 candidate for the NT Senate poll.

This action effectively precluded members of the NT ALP from voting in a selection ballot for their Senate candidate.  Incumbent Labor Senator for the NT, Trish Crossin, had been cast aside without prior advice or consultation (Ireland, J. & Willingham, R 2013, ‘Crossin to defy PM by seeking preselection’, 23 January, http://www.canberratimes.com.au/opinion/political-news/crossin-to-defy-pm-by-seeking-preselection-20130123-2d6Oh.html).  Other indigenous ALP members who had planned to contest preselection were also sidelined.

Candidate selection in the ALP is generally the responsibility of state or territory electorate councils (see page 346 of the textbook).  However, under section 7(f)(iii) of the party’s National Platform the National Executive has the power to intervene and override this process (ALP 46th National Conference 2011, National Platform, Chapter 12 ‘Constitution and Rules’, wwwlalp.org.au). On this occasion the prime minister used her status and influence as leader of the government to influence the National Executive to catapult her own selection onto the party ticket.

The ‘Captain’s pick’ – election announcement

On 30 January 2013 Julia Gillard used an address to the National Press Club in Canberra to announce that the parliament would serve its full three-year term (the 43rd parliament was elected on 21 August 2010) and she would advise the governor-general on 12 August 2013 to dissolve the House of Representatives with the election to be held on 14th September.  An  election for half of the Senate would be held at the same time.  You should note that Section 12 of the Australian Constitution provides that state governors are responsible for issuing the writs for Senate elections (see page 456 of the textbook). 

The fact that this was the personal decision of the prime minister and not the party is evident from reports that Labor MPs, including cabinet members, had not been consulted or advised.  Some Labor MPs were reportedly angry that the Greens and independents had been informed prior to the announcement but the party had not (Jones, G. 2013, ‘labor MPs stunned by Julia Gillard’s announcement of election date’, 31 January, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/nationa/llabor-mps-stunned-by-julia-gillards-announcement-of-election-date/story-fnchnkc6-1226565375840). Employment minister Bill Shorten told the Herald Sun that he was not aware that Julia Gillard had set the date for the election and commented: ‘The prime minister makes these decisions’ (www.herald.sun.com.au/news/victoria/employment-minister-bill-shorten-blindsided-by-election-announcement-while-answering-your-questions-at-heraldsun-headquarters/story-e6frf7kx-1226564831246).

The ‘Captain’s pick’ – ministerial appointments

As we saw in the textbook (pages 196-197) it is now the prerogative of a Labor prime minister to select the ministry.  When Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research,  Senator Chris Evans, announced their resignations from cabinet on 2 February 2013, prime minister Gillard announced a reshuffle of her ministry, including the reallocation of portfolios to existing ministers, the elevation of Mike Kelly from parliamentary secretary to Minister for Defence Materiel, and the appointment of three MPs to positions of parliamentary secretary (Prime Minister 2013, ‘Changes to the ministry’, 2 February, http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/changes-ministry-1).  A full listing of the new Gillard ministry can be found at http://www.dpmc.gov.au/parliamentary/docs/ministry_list_20130204.pdf). 

The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party caucus made up of Labor Members of the House of Representatives and Senators retains the power to vote for the ALP Leader of the Government in the Senate.  On 4 February they voted for Senator Stephen Conroy to replace Senator Evans in that position.

Constraints on prime ministerial power

The events described above are illustrations of the exercise of prime ministerial power over the party’s preselection process, determination of the election date, selection of ministers and allocation of portfolios.  However, as we saw on page 213 of the textbook there are constraints on prime ministerial power, the most significance of which is performance in the polls (see pages 410-412 of the textbook).  Dissatisfaction with the performance of a prime minister and/or any drop in support as preferred prime minister compared to the opposition leader, combined with weakening support for the party is likely to raise the question of a leadership spill.  This has been the experience of the Gillard leadership in recent months as polls have shown support for the ALP has dropped below the opposition and satisfaction with Gillard’s performance as prime minister has also slumped.   As a result, there has been constant speculation within the media that Kevin Rudd will mount a leadership challenge, a prospect at the time of writing this blog he has denied.  

The failure of a prime minister to lead his or her party to election victory, of course, is the ultimate constraint on the power of a party leader and often leads to their replacement.

Gwynneth Singleton

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