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Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership and Liberal Party’s factional politics

While the Australian Labor Party has long-standing formalized factions (Singleton et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, pp 346-347) it has been ‘an enduring myth’ that the Liberal Party of Australia does not have factions (Abjorensen, N. 2015, Inside Story, 6 July This is definitely not the case because although not formally organised there are distinct liberal and conservative ideologically-based groupings within the party with differences of opinion about the role of government and the policies to progress their particular view of the political world.

Tensions created by this division have spilt over into political bloodletting.  Malcolm Turnbull, generally regarded as a moderate, was outsted as Opposition Liberal leader by a conservative-led party room putsch on 1 December 2009.  The move was fuelled by opposition from conservative Members and Senators to the direction of his policies and pushed to a head by arch conservative climate change sceptics within the parliamentary party opposed to Turnbull’s support for the Labor government’s carbon emissions scheme. Turnbull was replaced by ideologically conservative Tony Abbott albeit by the narrowest margin of 1 vote.  The conservative influence from that point dominated the leadership and policy trajectory of the parliamentary party through to the 2010 federal election which the Coalition won and subsequently with Tony Abbott as prime minister progressing the conservative cause.

Abbott’s failure to connect with the public was reflected in dismal polling of his leadership performance.  The unpopular policy agenda embodied in his government’s poorly-received 2014 budget exacerbated the situation. The Coalition’s continued trailing behind Labor in two-party preferred polling destabilised his leadership within the parliamentary Liberal party. This situation was not wholly the product of unpopular government budgetary policies.  It reflected also Abbott’s personal style of leadership including an unwillingness to compromise and engage in pragmatic dealing with the Senate cross bench to facilitate passage of government legislation through the parliament and the disembodiment of his leadership from the ranks of Liberal MPs.

The prospect of the loss of many Liberal seats if the polls continued to favour Labor injected a strong element of electoral pragmatism into the leadership issue within the parliamentary party.  On 14 September 2015 when push came to shove the conservatives were on the losing side when a Liberal party room coup, including 14 of the 35 member front bench, displaced the incumbent conservative Abbott with the moderate, more electorally popular Malcolm Turnbull by 54 to 44 votes.  It was reported that a crucial element in the change of leadership was a shift in support from members of the centre-right to Turnbull (Martin, S. 2015, liberal-party-room-voted-story/5f2ef2b4340a9f72140e806a837cc09e).

The political style and language of Turnbull at his first conference after the ballot is indicative of the ideological approach his leadership will follow.  He said ‘we will have now, an economic vision, a leadership that explains great challenges and opportunities that we face.  Describes the way in which we can handle those challenges, seize those opportunities and does so in a manner that the Australian people understand so that we are seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture.  This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government…committed to freedom, the individual and the market’ (Turnbull, M. 2015, ‘Transcript: Vote on the Liberal Party Leadership’, 15 September

In the wash up from the leadership change the Liberal federal parliamentary party remains a ‘house’ divided.  Turnbull’s ministry excluded arch conservatives Senator Eric Abetz and MHR Kevin Andrews.  It included moderates Marise Payne and Arthur Sinodinos.  Turnbull was heckled and jeered when he declared in a speech to the NSW Liberal Party state council ‘we are not run by factions’, a statement clearly at odds with the factional context associated with the ousting of Abbott.  It was the reported opinion of a ‘senior Liberal insider’ that “it was quite ridiculous for Malcolm to even go there given the level of factionalism at the council.  Everyone there is either on one side or another.  Not only that, the factional wars in the Liberal Party are brutal”‘ (Hills, B. 11 October 2015 The opinion has been put forward that ‘the conservative base detests the man’ [Turnbull]’ (cited in Warhurst, J. 2015, ‘Turnbull-Abbott rivalry reveals Liberals’ idelogical chasm’, Eureka Street, 30 November

A disgruntled rump of arch conservatives festers on the back benches amid media speculation that dissidents may break away and establish a new conservative party. Maurice Newman, a former Abbott appointee to the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council reportedly warned Turnbull ‘to keep the conservative right wing of the Liberal Party on side or risk a party split’ (Chanticleer, 28 September 2015

Plotting by conservatives to regain the leadership could be a real threat to Turnbull’s tenure.  The recent precedent was set by defeated Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s successful pursuit, destabilisation and ousting of Julia Gillard, the rival who deposed him.  The conditions of a failing government unlikely to win the forthcoming election underpinned Rudd’s revival and Turnbull’s successful challenge to Abbott.  Current polling for Turnbull and his government is positive and under these conditions the conservatives would have difficulty in gaining the numbers to depose him.  Electoral pragmatism was the significant element in Turnbull’s accession to the leadership when the threat of electoral disaster turned the tide in his favour within the party room. If Turnbull leads the Liberals to victory at next year’s federal election in the poll that matters, then electoral pragmatism will no doubt keep him in the driving seat and the conservatives will have to bide their time until the tide of public of opinion turns against him.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

18 December 2015


The Abbott and Turnbull governments and the Australian Public Service

Prime ministers and their ministries

It is the prerogative of the Australian prime minister to appoint the cabinet and the outer ministry, including parliamentary secretaries, and to determine the structure of the departments that support the administration of their government (see Singleton,G. et al, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Education, pp 194-195).  For example, prime minister Tony Abbott’s last ministry as at 20 September 2015 comprised 19 cabinet ministers, an outer ministry of 11 and 12 parliamentary secretaries.  His successor Malcolm Turnbull’s first ministry, on the other hand, comprised 22 cabinet ministers, an outer ministry of 10 and 12 assistant ministers.  Turnbull changed the title of what had formerly been called ‘parliamentary secretaries’ to ‘assistant ministers’ to reflect their function more accurately (Turnbull, M. ‘Changes to the Ministry’, 20 September 2015,

Prime ministers and the Australian Public Service

Australian prime ministers historically have reorganised the Australian Public Service to reflect the policy interests of their governments.  This is evident from the number of Commonwealth government departments established by different governments detailed in Table 7.1 of Singleton et al, p. 245.  The Abbott and Turnbull governments each established 18 departments but the different distribution of policy responsibilities reflected each government’s own political agenda.

This can be seen from the Administrative Arrangements Order issued by the Governor-General on 18 September 2013 which sets out the Abbott government’s amendment of the Gillard government arrangements (see and the Administrative Arrangements Order issued by the Governor-General on 20 September 2015 amending those arrangements to meet the changed required by the Turnbull government (see: As an example the Department of Agriculture was changed to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to reflect the fact that the responsibility for water had been moved from the Environment portfolio to the new department under Minister Barnaby Joyce.  A number of government bodies had also been abolished by the Abbott government.

Impact of government policy on staffing the Australian Public Service

Changes to the number of ongoing (full time) paid staff of the Australian Public Service reflect movements in government policy (see Table 7.2 Singleton et al, p. 246).  In order to achieve budget savings the Abbott government made substantial cuts to the Australian Public Service which resulted in a reduction of numbers from 151,384 in June 2013 to 134,398 in June 2015.  An interesting statistic is the loss of around 3,000 jobs from the Australian Taxation Office (  This is surprising given the government’s policy of identifying and preventing tax avoidance to bolster tax revenues.  It is too soon to identify the impact of the Turnbull government on public service numbers but these can be accessed from the Australian Public Service Commission website at when they become available.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

28 November 2015



Independents and minor parties in Australian Parliaments

Australian parliaments function principally on a two-party basis with governments being formed either by the Australian Labor Party or the Liberal Party of Australia sometimes in coalition with the Nationals as its partner.  Minor parties and independents, however, have a significant role to play when they hold the balance of power. This has been notably the case in the Australian federal parliament where governments formed by the majority party in the Australian House of Representatives have to secure the passage of their legislation through the second chamber, the Australian Senate.  Government parties have not held a majority in the Senate since 1 July 1981 except for the short period between 1 July 2005 and 30 June 2008.  This has meant that for most of that period governments of the day have had to negotiate with minor parties and/or independents in the Senate in order to pass their bills.  In some cases this has required compromise on the part of the government, but some bills fail to pass.  The recent Abbott Coalition government, for example, had significant elements of its 2014 budget rejected by the Senate.

It is relevant, therefore, that we look at the number of minor party and independent members across all Australian parliaments.  Chapter 10 of Singleton et al (2013) Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, provides the numbers of representatives of minor parties (Tables 10.4 and 10.5) and independents (Table 10.14) as at 2013.  Updated data as at October 2015 is presented below.

Number of minor parties represented in Australian parliaments October 2015

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                3 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                              14 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                  3 out of 93

New South Wales Legislative Council                                     10 out of 42

Victoria Legislative  Assembly                                                   2 out of 86

Victoria Legislative Council                                                        10 out of 40

Queensland Legislative Assembly                                               2 out of 89 (there is no upper house in Queensland)

South Australia Legislative Council                                             5 out of 22

Western Australia Legislative Council                                        3 out of 36

Tasmania Legislative  Assembly                                                3 out of 25

Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly                      1 out of 17

Number of independents represented in Australian parliaments October 2015

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                     2 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                                   4 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                    2 out of 93

Victoria Legislative Assembly                                                    1 out of 86

Tasmania Legislative Council                                                   12 out of 15

Number of members of The Nationals represented in Australian Parliaments October 2015*

Australian Parliament – House of Representatives                    15 out of 150

Australian Parliament – Senate                                                    5 out of 76

New South Wales Legislative Assembly                                    17 out of 93

New South Wales Legislative Council                                        7 out of 42

Western Australia Legislative Assembly                                      7 out of 59

Western Australia Legislative Council                                         5 out of 36

*In Queensland the Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals merged in 2008 to form the Liberal National Party

Overall it is apparent that there are not a great number of minor party or independent members sitting in the Australian federal and state parliaments.  Significantly, however, there is currently a record 18 cross bench members in the Australian Senate which is the reason why it has been difficult for the Coalition government to craft a majority for contested legislation in the Senate (contested in the sense that the Opposition does not support government bills which means the government has to seek support from the cross bench to gain a majority).  The Gillard Labor minority government (2010-2013) faced the added difficulty of having to craft its majority in the House of Legislation from the cross bench.  It was successful because despite the Opposition contesting 50 per cent of government bills none were defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives, although some bills were withdrawn by the government when it became apparent they would not pass.  The reasons for the Gillard government’s success in dealing with the cross bench can be found in Singleton, G. 2014, ‘The Legislative Record of a “Hung” Parliament’, in Aulich, C. ed The Gillard Governments, Melbourne University Press.

One statistic that stands out from these figures is the fact that 12 out of the 15 seats in the Tasmanian Legislative Council are held by independents and a majority of this magnitude does not occur in any other Australian jurisdiction.  So why do voters for the Tasmanian Legislative Council prefer to support independents?  The nature of the voting system is a contributing factor.  The state is divided into 15 single-member constituencies for elections for the Council.  Each elected member holds office for 6 years and elections are held for only two or three electorates every year using the same type of preferential system used for the Australian House of Representatives where election is secured by the candidate who secures an absolute majority (50 per cent plus 1).  If no candidate secures this majority on the first count, preferences are distributed until the required majority is reached (to see how this works in practice see pp 303-305 Singleton et al 2013).  It has been argued that ‘a combination of never electing the entire House at one time, the lack of a contest for Premier at the time people vote, and single-member electorates have tended to result in a lot of popular local independents winning seats with many of those having local government experience’ (

Why would an elector vote for a minor party candidate or an independent if there is little likelihood that those representatives would hold the balance of power?  The situation was highlighted during debate in the House of Representatives this week when Eric Hutchinson MP remarked of Andrew Wilkie MP who had been a member of the critical cross bench during the Gillard Government’s ‘hung’ parliament: ‘For these 3 years he was, of course, pivotal.  He had a very significant and influential position in this parliament with the balance of power.  To complain now, when he is effectively irrelevant, is just beyond the pale’ (House of Representatives Hansard, 14 October 2015, p 29).

Reasons for supporting a minor party or independent candidate include support for the ideas or particular policies being enunciated, disillusionment with governments that fail to keep their promises but voters not being prepared to cross the two-major party divide and the knowledge that their vote may not be ‘wasted’ because they can direct their second preference to either of the major parties (Singleton et al 2013, p352).  Analysis of the vote for minor parties at the 2013 federal election can be found at  Antony Green’s Election Blog,

At the 2013 House of Representatives election the Coalition increased its representation from 73 to 90 seats, a shift in support reflecting voter dissatisfaction with the Labor government.  Independent Andrew Wilkie, however, successfully recontested the seat of Denison in  Tasmania with a swing of 16.82 per cent in his favour.  Greens’ Adam Bandt increased his support by 7.3 per cent to retain the seat of Melbourne ( The Tasmanian result could be a reflection of the Tasmanian predilection for voting independent and Andrew Wilkie promoting issues to the advantage of Tasmania.  The Greens’ vote reflected the nature of this inner-city Melbourne electorate and voter concern with particular issues. For example, one voter who said she was not a ‘rusted-on Greens supporter’, ‘shaped her decision based on issues such as foreign aid and asylum seekers’ while other voters said ‘climate change and better transport was also a critical factor’ in their decision to vote Green (Tomazin, F. 7 September 2013, Because the Coalition secured a majority in its own right and neither of these MPs have sway or influence over government business it remains to be seen whether they can sustain voter support in their respective electorates.

The Greens achieved 8.65 per cent of the primary vote at the 2013 election for the House of  Representatives. Poor polling support for the Abbott government has seen an increase in first preference support for the Greens which has not reduced significantly in the short time since Turnbull took over the leadership:   Galaxy 20-23 August 2015 13 per cent, 17-20 September 11 per cent (Turnbull became leader).  The Essential Report 15 September 2015, 11 per cent, 13 October 2015 10 per cent.  Roy Morgan 12-13 September 2015 16 per cent, 26-27 September 2015 14 per cent.  Newspoll-The Australian 17-20 September 2015 11 per cent, 8-11 October 2015 12 per cent (;;; Newspoll and the Australian sourced from However, it is early days yet for Turnbull so the full impact of the change in Liberal leader on voter intentions  in relation to minor parties and independents has yet to be realised.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

16 October 2015

Abbott poll axed! The revolving door of Australian political leadership continues as a dominant feature of the political process

‘Poll axing’ as the modus operandi for replacing a sitting prime minister discussed in Singleton et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia,pp 222-224 continues to prevail with the coup against Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott that saw him defeated 54 to 44 by Malcolm Turnbull in a Liberal Party room leadership ballot on Monday 14 September 2015.

Abbott joins the growing ranks of recent Australian political leaders deposed because their party’s poor showing in opinion polls and voter dissatisfaction with the performance of the prime minister threatened the party’s tenure in office and for opposition leaders the prospects of their party gaining office.

Liberal opposition leader Brendan Nelson was defeated by Malcolm Turnbull 45 to 41 votes on 16 September 2008 because of his poor showing in the polls.  Turnbull was narrowly defeated 42 to 41 by Abbott on 1 December 2009 when poor polling gave impetus to a push by conservative party members opposed to his support for climate change legislation.

Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd was felled on 24 June 2010 when a low 36 per cent poll satisfaction with his performance as prime minister provided a caucus unhappy with his leadership of the government with a reason to dispatch him from office.

Rudd was replaced by Gillard who suffered the same fate on 27 June 2013 when Rudd was rewarded for his dogged persistence in seeking to regain the leadership with a 57 to 45 Labor caucus vote in his favour. The reasons for Gillard’s defeat were her government consistently  trailing in the two-party preferred polls that indicated a substantive loss of seats and defeat of her government as well as dissatisfaction with her performance as prime minister running at over 60 per cent ( March-June 2013). Labor MPs and Senators deserted Gillard for Rudd because it was considered she was leading the party to a disastrous and historic loss and Rudd was more likely to salvage Labor seats (Griffiths, E. 27 June 2013, Rudd’s position, however, was short lived with Labor’s loss to the Coalition at the 7 September 2013 federal election when voters had their direct say on the performance of the Labor government.

The Coalition won but voter satisfaction with prime minister Tony Abbott sat at a low 33 per cent at the time of the election and remained low for the duration of his term of office, slumping to 24 per cent in February 2015 with the Coalition trailing Labor 43 per cent to 57 per cent on the two-party preferred basis in a 6-8 February Newspoll ( Dissatisfaction with Abbott’s performance as prime minister and leader of the government and the dire polls led to a party room spill motion on 9 February 2015 which Abbott survived by 61 yo 39 votes, described by him as ‘a near death experience’ and ‘a shot across the bow’ (Bourke, L. 9 February 2015, Nevertheless, the rumblings of discontent within the Liberal party room about Abbott’s leadership continued unabated with speculation continuing that another challenge to his leadership was imminent.  This was dismissed by Abbott as ‘Canberra insider gossip’ (Doyle, J. 28 February 2015,, but the question had been asked whether Abbott’s failings were ‘mortal’ (Hodge, J. 9 February 2015,

Abott’s promise to turn things around in six months did not happen and the Coalition continued to trail Labor in the two-party preferred polls.  A Fairfax-Ipsos poll taken 13-15 August 2015 placed Labor at 54 per cent and the coalition at 46 per cent.  Tony Abbott’s approval rating was a low 35 per cent (  A Galaxy poll taken 3-6 September 2015 placed the Coalition at 46 per cent compared to Labor’s 54 per cent of the two-party preferred vote which indicated Labor would  have won an election on those figures. Tony Abbott’s personal approval rating as prime minister had fallen to 30 per cent (Galaxy Research,

On 14 September 2015 it was reported that ‘ministerial paranoia, the Canning by-election (a normally comfortable Liberal safe seat that was trending towards marginal with a projected 10 point swing, Uhlmann, C. 14 September 2015, fear that Abbott would bring on a snap double-dissolution election to head off any leadership challenge, and Turnbull polling ahead of Abbott as preferred prime minister brought the prospect of another leadership challenge into sharp relief (Matthewson, P. 14 September 2015,  One cabinet minister is reported to have commented on 14 September 2015 that Abbott ‘has had six months and things have gone from bad to worse.  He should just resign’ (Uhlmann, C. 14 September 2015,  The prospect of losing their seats caused even conservative hardliners who had moved to oust Turnbull from the leadership in 2009  to move towards support for Turnbull as ‘their only chance of avoiding electoral oblivion’ (Matthewson, P. 14 September 2015, When making his leadership challenge Turnbull said: ‘The one thing that is clear about our current situation is the trajectory.  We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row.  It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership’ (Crowe, D. 15 September 2015

On Monday 14 September 2015 Turnbull defeated Abbott to become leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party and prime minister.  Abbott’s one year and 361 days in office is the shortest time served as prime minister since Harold Holt’s tenure but Holt disappeared at sea and was not defeated in a party room ballot.

In the five years since 2010 three prime ministers (Rudd, Gillard, Abbott) have come and gone through the revolving door of the prime ministerial suite at Parliament House because of lack of success in the opinion polls. In the immediate aftermath of Turnbull’s accession to the leadership the Coalition raced ahead of Labor in two-party preferred polling.  He also improved his position as preferred prime minister ahead of opposition leader Bill Shorten (;

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has described ‘Abbott’s downfall’ as an example of ‘the brutality of modern politics’ (Kelly, E., Thomson, P., Burgess, K. 15 September 2015, Australian politics has been experiencing the unrelenting displacement of any prime minister or opposition leader who cannot sustain their party’s dominance in the polls.  Speculation has been rife that opposition leader Bill Shorten may be replaced if Labor’s polling declines into an unwinnable deficit.

A party room coup creates a schism between the supporters of the victor and the vanquished. As we saw with Kevin Rudd the defeated leader and his or her supporters will re-group and plot to take control if the new leader does not sustain a favourable polling record.  It is very early days for Turnbull’s leadership and it remains to be seen whether the spike in the polls that his takeover has generated can be sustained. If not, it is likely that the conservatives who were the driving force in Turnbull’s defeat in 2009 could work against his leadership a second time. A victory for a Turnbull led Coalition at the next federal election would be a defining element in sustaining his leadership.

The recent record of ‘poll axing’ first term prime ministers and opposition leaders casts a glaring spotlight on the significance of ‘the leader’ to the Australian political process.  Should the tenure of a party leader be challenged every time the polls turn sour?  If this becomes the norm then prime ministers who want to retain their job will need to be in constant campaign mode pandering to the dictates of a poll-driven popularity contest.  This will make governments reluctant to take the hard decisions necessary for good government that may inflict short term pain in the polls but long term gain in good policy. If this is the case public policy will be determined by short term knee jerk reactions designed specifically to shore up the government’s popularity in the polls.

It is interesting to ponder the implications of this revolving door process which it has been alleged has injected  instability into Australia’s political system.  The ‘poll axing’ of political leaders of governments within the party room displaces the choice of voters who cast their ballots at a general election in the expectation that the majority party (and its leader) that they elected will govern until the next election. Does the ‘poll axing’ of the prime minister on the basis of opinion polls undermine this democratic process?  The coups against Abbott, Rudd and Turnbull were received with hostility by electors in the community who had voted for them and supported the policies they projected.  On the other hand, regular opinion polls provide the opportunity for ongoing judgement from within the electorate on the government’s performance and its policies that a three-year electoral cycle does not afford. Because opinion polls are not going to go away governments will have to work within the political environment that has been created.  Popularity in the polls derives from acceptance and approval on the part of the electorate for government policy.  Any government that wants to secure a favourable opinion poll approval rating will need to develop support for its policies by informing and taking the majority of the electorate along with them.  In the final analysis, however, a federal election which provides all voters with the definitive say in which party will govern remains the fundamental plank and basis for the Australian political process of democratic majority government.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

30 September 2015

Abbott’s captain’s pick of his ministry left women out in the cold

Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott selected only 6 women for inclusion in his first ministry: 1 in his 19 person cabinet, 4 in the 11 person Outer Ministry and 1 in the group of 12 Parliamentary Secretaries.

When asked whether the gender imbalance in his cabinet compared to the gender make-up of the Australian population was an issue Abbott replied: ‘I’m obviously disappointed that there aren’t more women in Cabinet and if Sophie Mirabella had been clearly ahead in Indi, Sophie would be in the Cabinet.  So plainly, I am disappointed that there are not at least two women in Cabinet.  Nevertheless, there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the Cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry.  so I think you can expect to see, as time goes by, more women in both the Cabinet and the Ministry’ (Tony Abbott, Press Conference, 16 September 2013, To rub salt into the wounds Abbott took responsibility for women’s issues with the token gesture of appointing Senator Michaelia Cash assisting the prime minister in that portfolio.

Despite Abbott’s comments about the expectation that more women would be appointed to the cabinet and the ministry ‘as time goes by’ he failed to take the opportunity substantively to improve the gender imbalance when he reshuffled his ministry in December 2014.  His promotion of 1 extra woman to Cabinet left only 3 in the Outer Ministry.  He added 2 extra women Parliamentary Secretaries, but overall the total number of women in his ministry only increased from 6 to 8.

The low representation of women in Abbott’s 1st and 2nd ministries compares poorly with the record of the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments.  The 1st Rudd Ministry: Cabinet 4, Ministry 3, Parliamentary Secretaries 3 = Total of 10. The 1st Gillard Ministry surprisingly included 2 fewer women: Cabinet 4 (including Gillard), Ministry 3, Parliamentary Secretaries 2 = Total of 8. Prime Minister Gillard explained she wanted to keep changes to a minimum when she succeeded Rudd after the June 2010 party coup: ‘the team is the team as you see it’ but she indicated the shape of the ministry would be reviewed after the August 2010 election (Packham, B. & Schulz, M. , Herald Sun, 28 June 2010

In her 2nd ministry Gillard increased the number of women to 10 – Cabinet 5 (including Gillard); Ministry 2, Parliamentary Secretaries 3. Gillard increased the number of women in her subsequent ministries to 12.   Rudd, who returned to the position of prime minister after a caucus room ballot in which Gillard was defeated, included 14 women in his ministry: Cabinet 6, Ministry 5 and 3 Parliamentary Secretaries.

The Coalition’s Leader of Government Business in the Senate and Employment Minister Senator Eric Abetz is reported as having defended the minimal level of female representation in Abbott’s first cabinet with the comment that having more women in the Labor ministry had not necessarily led to good representation in parliament and to have said: ‘You have to  make very tough judgment calls as prime minister as to who is in and who is out of Cabinet and at the end of the day we, as a Coalition, have always said that these positions should be based on merit rather than on quota’ (

Labor’s Chris Bowen said the make-up of Abbott’s first ministry had ‘taken Australia backwards’ and ‘the fact that the new Prime Minister could only find, out of his entire party room, one female member of Parliament that he regards as being meritorious enough to serve in his Cabinet is a sad indictment’ adding that the cabinet of Afghanistan had more women than the Australian Cabinet (

There was also criticism from within the Liberal Party about Abbott’s selections for his 1st ministry.  Liberal Senator Judith Troeth said ‘the appointments sent a bad signal to women about their chances of promotion if they entered politics’ and would ‘send a message’ to women in business who wanted to enter parliament ‘to not even bother – don’t even try’. ‘Tony Abbott says they’re knocking on the door but why is it shut in the first place?’ (Crowe, D. The Australian, 17 September 2013

Australia does not perform very well in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) rankings of the proportion of women in lower houses of parliament around the world.  In 2011 Australia ranked 38th with 24.7 per cent (see Table 5.6 ‘Proportion of women in parliament, 2011, selected countries’ in Singleton, G. et al, 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, p. 150). In August 2015 Australia had fallen  to 44th position even though its representation had increased slightly to 26.7 per cent because other countries had improved their performance (Women in National Parliaments: World Classification, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1st August 2015,

So how can Australian governments improve the representation of women in the ministry? A starting point may be to ensure that more women are elected to parliament. The Australian Labor Party uses quotas to increase the number of women pre-selected for winnable seats (Singleton et al 2013, p. 346).  In July 2015 the party increased the target from the current 40 per cent to 45 per cent in 2022 and 50 per cent in 2025 (Osborne, P., The Australian, 26 July 2015,

Opinion is divided within the non-Labor Coalition parties on this issue.  It has been reported that most Liberal MPs are opposed to the introduction of a quota system (Donovan, S., 28 July 2015, Some Nationals MPs are also opposed to the use of quotas but Federal President of the Nationals Christine Ferguson is reported to favour setting a target of 20 per cent female MPs for the party before 2025 (Fairbairn, M. 10 August 2015,

Setting targets is a softer option than adopting a prescriptive quota system. Liberal Senator Judith Troeth in 2010 advocated targets with the comment: ‘Unless we set an extreme objective like that I can’t see that we’re going to improve the numbers’.  Liberal Senator Sue Boyce said the party needed to look at preselection processes because ‘there are as many women of merit available for positions as there are men of merit, but for some reason we’re not attractive to them’.  Liberal Judi Moylan, a minister in the Howard government, said the Liberal Party had to act on the problem and that ‘by far the biggest impediment to women getting preselection’ was the fact that ‘you get several more men than women standing’ (Crowe, D., The Australian 17 September 2013,

Gladys Berejiklian, Liberal Treasurer in the NSW Baird government, reportedly has changed her mind about using affirmative action, expressing favour of pre-selection targets for winnable seats until at least 50 per cent of elected representatives are female.  She said ‘I didn’t want to be tainted as somebody who got there because I’d been targeted, or because there was a quota system.  I thought I’d got there on my merit and everybody else should do the same. But I realise, when you look around that nothing has changed.  I [now] believe you have to proactively intervene, work out where the barrier is and address that’ (Smith, F., 25 August 2015,

It is interesting to look at the gender balance in the parliaments of other countries.  The United States of America House of Representatives ranks 75th in the IPU league table with representation of only 19.4 per cent women. Neither of the two major parties has formal quotas or targets. There is a marked difference between the parties. Of the 84 women in the House of Representatives only 22 are Republicans while 62 are Democrats.

The New Zealand House of Representatives ranks 31st on the IPU table with 31.4 per cent women of whom the National Party has 16 representing 26 per cent of its sitting members and the New Zealand Labour Party has 12 which represents 37 per cent of its sitting members. The New Zealand Labour Party set a target for at least 45 per cent women Labour MPs to be implemented after the 2014 election and at least 50 per cent women after the 2017 election (Young,A., New Zealand Herald, 3 November 2013, The National Party said that Labour’s proposed quota system would undermine ‘women’s ability to succeed on merit alone’ (Radio New Zealand, 5 July 2013, The current Key National government, in contrast to Abbott, has 6 women in its 20 member cabinet and 3 women ministers outside cabinet (

The UK House of Commons ranks 38th on the IPU table with 29.5 per cent women members. There is a difference between the parties.  The Conservatives have 18.5 per cent women MPs compared to Labour’s 35 per cent.  The UK Labour Party has used gender quotas since 1997 which it has been argued accounts for its success in increasing the representation of Labour women in the parliament (Childs, S., 12 September 2014, ‘Missing Women: It’s Time for Legislative Quotas in British Politics’ Despite the disparity the current Conservative 22 member cabinet includes 7 women.

The Australian Liberal Party seems to be giving serious attention to the use of targets to increase the proportion of women in its ranks.  A report by Liberal think tank Menzies Research Centre in favour of incremental targets was endorsed by Abbott who ‘is open to the idea of setting a target’ but does ‘not want to set a quota’.  He is reported to have told a Liberal Party Federal Women’s Committee that the party must become ‘less blokey’ and if the party doesn’t ‘get the percentage of women up, we will be letting ourselves down’ (Doran, M. 15 August 2015, According to Abbott ‘it would be entirely reasonable for our party to have, not a quota, but a target to increase the number of women in the parliament and in our government at every opportunity’ including increasing the number of women within the ministry at every reshuffle (

An increase in the number of Liberal women MPs is not a prerequisite for improving the gender balance in the Abbott ministry.  The selection of the ministry is ‘the captain’s pick’ and Abbott has the power to increase the representation of women in his team from the pool of talented Liberal women currently in the parliament.

An interesting publication on this issue is McCann, J. 14 November 2013 ‘Electoral quotas for women: an international overview’,

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

29 August 2015

Abbott’s July 2015 COAG: cooperative or coercive federalism?

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia whose membership comprises the prime minister, state premiers, territory chief ministers and the president of the Australian Local Government Association.  The extent to which the prime minister utilises COAG as a policy forum has depended on the relationship between a federal government and member state governments.  For example, Coalition prime minister John Howard had to deal with a COAG where all state and territory governments were Labor thus making it more difficult to achieve consensus on his policy preferences (Singleton, G. et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, ‘Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and cooperative federalism’, case study, pp 130-132).

At a special meeting of COAG held on 23 July 2015, the membership comprised a Coalition prime minister (Liberal Tony Abbott), 3 Liberal premiers (NSW, WA and Tas) plus the Country Liberal Chief Minister for the Northern Territory and 3 Labor premiers (Vic. Qld and SA) plus the Labor Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory.  An historic first Leaders’ Retreat for all COAG members without the presence of supporting bureaucrats was held in Sydney on 22 July.  With this mix of party representation it could have been expected that prime minister Abbott would have had difficulty gaining the agreement of all COAG members to his preferred policy agenda.

COAG outcomes

Signs of COAG working as a forum for cooperative federalism were evident in agreements reached to a coordinated approach to counter-terrorism (Australia’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy), continuation of a national campaign to reduce violence against women and their children jointly funded by all jurisdictions, and agreement by all governments to work with the National Ice Taskforce to develop a National Ice Action Strategy (COAG, ‘Communique-COAG Special Meeting, Consensus was achievable on these issues because they did not cut across party lines or threaten the interests of individual states.  There was also agreement to reform of the vocational education and training sector, including consideration of a federal takeover, unanimous support for the Northern Territory’s proposal to gain statehood by 1 July 2008, and ‘recognition of the need to consider working towards extending Medicare to cover treatments in hospitals based on efficient pricing’ (

The fact that consensus is fractured when federal-state financial relations come into play was brought into focus in my April 2015 blog: ‘COAG April 2015: Australian federalism business as usual’.  A catalyst for the disagreement between the states and the Commonwealth government at that meeting was the Abbott government’s May 2014 budget decision to cut $80 billion from the states’ funding for schools and hospitals.  There was also disagreement between the states over the GST with Western Australia’s premier pushing for a revision of the GST distribution to assist his state’s financial problems which was not supported by other states.

Federal-state financial issues, not surprisingly, were front and centre at the July 2015 meeting with the Abbott government looking for the means to increase its revenue base and the states and territories seeking additional revenue to fund the short-falls in their own budgets, including the federal government’s projected cuts to their funding.  Tax reform, or more aptly, ways of increasing the tax take, was on the agenda.

All COAG members understood the need for additional revenue but there were differences between them as to how it should be achieved.

Prime Minister Abbott had previously expressed an interest in looking at the GST to raise revenue (Singleton, G. Blog, 30 March 2015 ‘Will the Abbott Government increase the GST?).  The GST came on to the agenda for the July 2015 COAG meeting when NSW Liberal premier Mike Baird proposed an increase from 10 to 15 per cent to meet the costs of health care.  He also flagged the need to provide compensation to lower income earners who would be most disadvantaged by any GST increase.

Labor premiers Daniel Andrews (Victoria) and Annastacia Palaszczuk (Queensland) opposed any increase to the GST preferring an increase to the Medicare levy to fund health services. The Queensland premier commented: ‘If Tony Abbott wants to go and put that to the Australian public that is his option’. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr reportedly did not reject Baird’s proposal but preferred the idea of an increase to the Medicare levy (

Consensus was reached by COAG members to extend the GST to include all online sale transactions from overseas valued at less than AUD $1,000 which previously had been exempt.  It was also reported that ‘taken in parallel with the Tax White Paper, leaders agreed there is an opportunity to consider more durable revenue arrangements to address growing financial pressures facing all governments.  Any revenue arrangements need to be fair, efficient and lasting’ said the prime minister  (

This is not going to be an easy task.  Consensus was not achievable at the COAG meeting on a general increase to the GST or an alternative increase to the Medicare levy.  It was reported that Abbott ‘sent a clear signal that he preferred an increase in the GST to a higher Medicare levy, saying a change in the consumption tax could lead to simpler taxes and would rate as a genuine reform’ (Crowe, D. 23 July 2015 The Labor premiers of Victoria and Queensland, however, remained resolutely opposed as did Tasmanian Liberal premier Will Hodgman who said after the meeting that his state’s position in supporting the current GST arrangements had not changed, nor did they ‘support increasing income tax via a higher Medicare levy’ (

The debate on tax reform will not doubt be fuelled further with the publication of the Commonwealth White Paper due at the end of 2015.

Cooperative or coercive federalism?

Cooperative federalism involves mutual agreement and collaborative joint action.  The July 2015 COAG meeting met those criteria on the basis of the consensus reached on a number of issues and the collaborative action to be taken to achieve those strategies and objectives.  However, it fell short on the substantive tax reform issues on which the participants failed to agree. It could be argued that the agreement by COAG to consider ‘more durable revenue arrangements’ and not to take the GST or the Medicare levy off the table, is more a function of coercive federalism.

Coercive federalism occurs when ‘a federal government pressures the states to change their policies by using regulation, mandates and conditions (often involving threats to withdraw federal funding)’.  U.S. federalism has been ‘described as “coercive” on the basis of ‘major political, fiscal, statutory, regulatory and judicial practices’ imposed by the federal government on the states (Kincaid, J. 2008, ‘Contemporary U.S. Federalism: Coercive Change with Cooperative Continuity’, Revista D’Estudis Autonomics i Federals, No. 6 April 2008).  This process can be seen with the Abbott government’s $80 billion cuts to state funding for schools and hospitals, forcing the states to secure an increase in tax receipts and ways of achieving it, hence their agreement at the COAG meeting to keep Commonwealth and State tax changes on the table, including the GST and the Medicare levy for the Commonwealth’s White Paper on Tax Reform (

It must be asked how strong is the Commonwealth government’s commitment to addressing tax reform on a cooperative basis with the states when Abbott apparently has his own agenda on how it should be carried out?  The capacity of COAG to resolve this issue in a cooperative way may be unlikely considering some premiers expressed their strong opposition to any increase in the GST as soon as the COAG meeting was over.  The success of COAG to function as a cooperative forum to achieve tax reform in that context may not be possible.  What we might see instead is what has been considered to be the Commonwealth repeatedly demonstrating  ‘that whatever it cannot do cooperatively it intends to do by legal and financial force’ where ‘the veil of cooperativeness that overlays this shift to “coercive federalism” is increasingly thin and regularly disappears altogether’ (Brown, A.J. 2007, ‘Federalism in Australia – new life or old tricks?’, 26 March. The question raised in my 30 March 2015 blog remains – will the Abbott government risk going to an election having increased the GST by 50 per cent without the consent of all states and territories or with a policy to do so? Pragmatic electoralism may be the determinant of how this issue plays out rather than any deliberations of COAG.

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

4 August 2015



Early election for the Abbott government?

Recent media speculation and ponderings about the prospect of prime minister Tony Abbott calling an early election highlight the process for determining when an election will be held for the Australian House of Representatives.

Section 28 of the Australian Constitution provides that ‘Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General’.  However, this process functions in accordance with the convention that the Governor-General usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister in setting the election date (Australian Electoral Commission, Conventions in this context have been deemed to be ‘a set of traditions, customs and understandings from which developed a set of practices about the exercise of political power and the relationships between the institutions of government’ (Singleton, et al, Australian Political Institutions, 10th edition, 2013, p. 51).

The capacity to make this decision could be regarded as an element of prime ministerial power in the Australian political system, for example, providing the opportunity to call an election at a time when it is deemed most favourable to the government to do so.  For internal party purposes a prime minister may use the prospect of calling an early election to quieten dissidents within the party, particularly those who hold marginal seats (Singleton et al, p. 217).

Nevertheless, there are political constraints on when that power is exercised.  A Governor-General has the constitutional power to decline to do so or may require the prime minister to justify calling an early election, but it is most likely the prime minister’s wishes will prevail (Singleton et al, p. 217).  Most importantly the electoral climate must be favourable to the government’s chances of winning a majority otherwise there is the real prospect of losing seats and losing government.

Another constraint is the complication relating to the current practice of holding a half-Senate election at the same time as the election for the House of Representatives.  Section 13 of the Australian Constitution states that an election to fill vacant Senate places ‘shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant’.  In the current parliament this means that a half-Senate election cannot be held until 1 July 2016.  To call an early election for the House of Representatives before that date would mean a half-Senate election after 1 July 2016 which would be costly and may not be popular with voters.  It also raises the prospect as Antony Green points out ‘of the government running the risk of voters treating a separate half-Senate election as a giant by-election’ (, 25 June 2015).

The other alternative for the Abbott government would be to seek a double dissolution of the House of Representatives and the Senate.  However, the government would have to meet the requirements of Section 57 of the Australian Constitution (Disagreement between the Houses) under which a double dissolution can only be triggered if a government bill which has passed the House of Representatives has been rejected or failed to pass the Senate and again rejected or failed to pass when resubmitted after the constitutionally prescribed  interval of three months.

The quota of votes needed to secure election in a double dissolution Senate election for 12 senators for each state is half that required for a half-Senate election for 6 senators for each state.  This potentially would make it easier for minor parties and independents to secure a quota with the result that the cross-bench may be larger and more unwieldy than before.

The option of a double dissolution has only been exercised on 6 occasions since federation.  It would be a risky move for a government and a prime minister not particularly popular with the electorate to take because even if the government was re-elected a larger and more complex cross-bench may make it more difficult to get government legislation through the Senate and nothing would be gained.  Politically, the ascendance of Richard Di  Natale as the leader of the Greens with an apparent greater willingness to enter into a discourse with the government on legislation may render any prospect of a double dissolution election in an immediate sense less likely.

In May 2014 in the context of poor public and media reaction to his government’s budget, it was reported that Abbott ‘backtracked from suggestions of a double-dissolution’ (Akerman Pia, 18 May 2014,

Clearly electoral popularity of the government has to be a major consideration in any early election decision.  The Abbott government’s second budget in May 2015 which was received better by the media and the public, combined with the Labor opposition’s relatively weak performance caused more speculation about an early election.  Abbott reportedly told the Liberal Party room ‘that the government was coming good, just as the other lot was falling apart’ which drew the comment: ‘There may have been an element of  “rah-rah” to that message as well given his heightened sense of mortality after February (leadership spill motion).  There’s nothing like the prospect of an election to keep the troops focused’ (Kenny, M. 26 June 2015,

Reports that MPs heading off to their electorates for the winter parliamentary recess last week were advised to get a new photo with the prime minister ‘to use in local electorate materials’ fuelled the speculation that Abbott was considering an early election, but he denied this was the case: ‘I would certainly advise anyone thinking that way to, in the old terminology, have a bex and a long lie down’ (Moss, D. 25 June 2015,

Recent polls showing a lift in support for Abbott as preferred prime minister over opposition leader Shorten, for example Newspoll-The Australian poll taken 10-14 June 2015 places Abbott at 41 per cent compared to Shorten at 38 per cent ( could be taken as encouragement for calling an early election.  However, polls also show the Coalition trailing Labor in the two-party preferred vote.  For example, a Newspoll-The Australian poll taken 10-14 June 2015 shows Labor leading the Coalition 49 per cent to 51 per cent ( A Roy Morgan poll taken June 20/21 and 27/28 June is less optimistic for the government with Labor at 53 per cent and the Coalition trailing at 47 per cent ( There may be grounds for thinking that Abbott could outperform Shorten and Labor in an election campaign, but would it be a risk worth taking?

Dr Gwynneth Singleton, 30 June 2015