Leadership spill

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In Australian politics, a leadership spill (or simply spill[1]) is a declaration that the leadership of a parliamentary party is vacant, and open for re-election.[2] A spill may involve all leadership positions (leader and deputy leader in both houses), or just the leader.[3] Where a rival to the existing leader calls for a spill, it may also be called a leadership challenge.[2]

In Australian English the use of "spill" in this context has a long lineage with Oxford University Press tracing its first recorded appearance to a Canberra Times article dated 20 August 1945.[1][4]

A leadership election may result in a new leader, 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, which became increasingly common in the early 21st century - none in the 1960s, 10 in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, 13 in the 1990s and 31 between 2000-2015.[5] They are three times more likely to occur when a party is in opposition compared to when it holds government.[5] The frequent leadership spills and political instability between 2010 and 2015 - which saw five Prime Ministers in as many years - led to the country being dubbed "coup capital of the democratic world".[6]


In the Westminster system of government, the leader of the party which forms a government becomes the Prime Minister,[7] 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'.[7]

Federal ALP changes[edit]

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. This includes 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.[8] The changes, which also provided for equally weighted voting rights between the caucus and party rank and file members in future leadership ballots, were subsequently adopted by Labor.[9]

Notable intra-term spills[edit]

The following spills occurred while the leader was serving their term, rather than in the aftermath of an unsuccessful election when their term would come to an end. Colours denote the party in which the spill occurred. Blue represents the Liberal party, red the Labor party, and green the National party.


Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
10 March 1971 Liberal Government Gorton had faced a leadership challenge in November 1969 and prevailed. At this 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, and McMahon was elected his successor.[2]
8 April 1982 Liberal Government Fraser beat Peacock's challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party, 54–27 votes.[10]
16 July 1982 Labor Opposition
  • Bill Hayden (Opposition Leader)
  • Bob Hawke (Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Employment and Youth)
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.[11]
9 May 1989 Liberal Opposition Peacock won the Liberal leadership with 44 votes to Howard's 27, becoming leader for the second time.[12]
9 May 1989 National Opposition (coalition with Liberal Party) A simultaneous spill took place in the National Party room resulting in Charles Blunt replacing Ian Sinclair.[12]
3 June 1991 Labor Government
  • Bob Hawke (Prime Minister)
  • Paul Keating (Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer)
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.[2]
20 December 1991 Labor Government
  • Bob Hawke (Prime Minister)
  • Paul Keating (Backbencher)
With Hawke's public support having fallen to record lows, Keating launched a second leadership challenge. This effort was successful, with Keating winning the Labor leadership by 5 votes, 56-51.[2]
23 May 1994 Liberal Opposition 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.[13]
16 June 2003 Labor Opposition Crean defeated Beazley's challenge 58-34.[14]
2 December 2003 Labor Opposition
  • Kim Beazley (Backbencher and former Opposition Leader)
  • Mark Latham (Shadow Treasurer)
Following 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).[15]
4 December 2006 Labor Opposition
  • Kim Beazley (Opposition Leader)
  • Kevin Rudd (Shadow Foreign Minister)
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]
16 September 2008 Liberal Opposition Turnbull succeeded in his challenge to Nelson, 45-41.[17]
1 December 2009 Liberal Opposition
  • Malcolm Turnbull (Opposition Leader)
  • Joe Hockey (Shadow Treasurer)
  • Tony Abbott (Backbencher who had resigned shortly beforehand as Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs)
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.[18][19]

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.[20] 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.[20]

24 June 2010 Labor Government First term Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was replaced by his deputy Julia Gillard, months prior to the 2010 federal election.[21]
27 February 2012 Labor Government
  • Julia Gillard (Prime Minister)
  • Kevin Rudd (Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister)
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.[22]
21 March 2013 Labor Government
  • Julia Gillard (Prime Minister)
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.[23]
26 June 2013 Labor Government
  • Julia Gillard (Prime Minister)
  • Kevin Rudd (Backbencher and former Prime Minister)
Rudd retook the Labor Party leadership in a snap spill, defeating Julia Gillard by a 57–45 margin.[24] 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 A motion to bring about a leadership spill in the Liberal Party was defeated 61–39, with Tony Abbott remaining as Prime Minister.[25]
14 September 2015 Liberal Government
  • Tony Abbott (Prime Minister)
  • Malcolm Turnbull (Communications Minister and former Opposition Leader)
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.[26]

States and territories[edit]

New South Wales[edit]

Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
5 September 2008 Labor Government In the aftermath of an unsuccessful attempt to privatise the electricity system and party factional leaders blocking his proposed cabinet reshuffle,[27] Iemma resigned[28] after a challenge in the Labor party room from Nathan Rees.[29] Rees and his deputy Carmel Tebbutt were unanimously endorsed by the caucus.[27]
3 December 2009 Labor Government 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.[30] Rees accused her of being a puppet of factional leaders Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Frank Sartor.[30]

Northern Territory[edit]

Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
13 March 2013 Country Liberal Government 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.[31] 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.[32][33]
2 February 2015 Country Liberal Government 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.[34]
23 April 2015 Labor Opposition 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.[35] On 19 April 2015, Gunner announced he would stand for the leadership against Lawrie, who was refusing to resign.[36] 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.[37]


Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
26 November 1987 National Government 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 this meeting, a spill motion carried by a margin of 38-9. Bjelke-Petersen boycotted the meeting, and thus did not nominate for the ensuing leadership vote, which saw Ahern elected as the new leader and Bill Gunn elected deputy.[38]
6 May 2016 Liberal National Opposition 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.[39]

South Australia[edit]

Spill date Party Status Contenders
27 November 1996 Liberal Government 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.[40]
11 April 2007 Liberal Opposition Amidst poor polling Martin Hamilton-Smith defeated opposition leader Iain Evans by 13 votes to 10 for the SA Liberal leadership.[40] Evans had only become Opposition Leader in 31 March 2006 in a "dream team" with former rival Vickie Chapman following the Liberals' loss in the 2006 election.[40]
4 July 2009 Liberal Opposition Hamilton-Smith defeated his deputy 11-10, which led him to call a second vote four days later which he did not contest.[40]
8 July 2009 Liberal Opposition The second consecutive Liberal Party spill in four days led to the elevation of Isobel Redmond.[40]
21 October 2011 Labor Government 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 2011 state election, which angered Rann but was presented to the public as a smooth transition that avoided a confrontation and party room vote.[40]


Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
6 March 2013 Liberal Government First term Liberal premier Bailleiu resigned and was replaced by Dennis Napthine after the controversial backbencher Geoff Shaw resigned from the Liberal Party, depriving it of a majority in the Victorian Parliament.[41] 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.[42][43]

Western Australia[edit]

Spill date Party Status Contenders Outcome
20 September 2016 Liberal Government 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.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Spill" (PDF). Word of the Month. Oxford University Press. May 2015. Retrieved 21 May 2016. The word spill in this sense is an Australian English term, and has a long history, being first recorded in 1945... 
  2. ^ a b c d e Lyons, Kate (15 September 2015). "Australian party leadership challenges: a brief history of spills". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 May 2016. 
  3. ^ "Leadership spill (definition)". Macquarie Dictionary. Macmillan Publishers Group Australia. 2015. Retrieved 21 May 2016. 
  4. ^ "Mr. Makin likely to succeed Mr. Bruce". Canberra Times. 20 August 1945. p. 2. Retrieved 21 May 2016. 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. 
  5. ^ a b Tiffen, Rodney (15 September 2015). "Seventy-two coups later, leaders seem less safe than ever". Inside Story. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  6. ^ Bryant, Nick (14 September 2015). "Australia: Coup capital of the democratic world". BBC News. Retrieved 4 December 2016. With five prime ministers in as many years, Canberra has solidified its reputation as the coup capital of the democratic world. 
  7. ^ a b Bennister, Mark (2012). Prime Ministers in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 73. ISBN 0230273211. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  8. ^ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-08/kevin-rudd-reveals-plan-for-labor-party-leadership-voting-reform/4806820
  9. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/kevin-rudd-wins-over-party-leadership-rules-20130722-2qdly.html
  10. ^ "Australian premier coasts past leadership challenge". The Christian Science Monitor. 9 April 1982. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  11. ^ "Spills and thrills: A history of leadership challenges". ABC News. 15 September 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  12. ^ a b Jean-Benoit Pilet; William Cross (10 January 2014). The Selection of Political Party Leaders in Contemporary Parliamentary Democracies: A Comparative Study. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-92945-1. 
  13. ^ "Alexander Downer And Peter Costello Win Liberal Party Leadership". Australian Politics. 23 May 1994. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  14. ^ "Simon Crean Survives Leadership Challenge From Kim Beazley | AustralianPolitics.com". Australian Politics. 16 June 2003. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  15. ^ "Latham Wins ALP Leadership 47-45". Australian Politics. 2 December 2003. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
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  20. ^ a b "Turnbull defiant, Abbot to seek leadership". perthnow. News Limited. 29 November 2009. Retrieved 9 June 2010. 
  21. ^ Coorey, Phillip; Lester, Tim (24 June 2010). "Gillard becomes Australia's first female prime minister as tearful Rudd stands aside". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 25 June 2010. Retrieved 24 June 2010. 
  22. ^ "Julia Gillard wins Labor leadership ballot". The Australian. 27 February 2012. Retrieved 27 February 2012. 
  23. ^ "Gillard survives as challenge fizzles out". 
  24. ^ "Labor leadership live: Kevin Rudd returns, Julia Gillard loses support of partyroom". News.com.au. 26 June 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2013. 
  25. ^ Griffith, Emma; Glenday, James (9 February 2015). "Tony Abbott keeps leadership of Liberal Party but some supporters fear he is doomed". ABC News. Retrieved 9 February 2015. 
  26. ^ Martin, Sarah (15 September 2015). "Abbott v Turnbull: how the Liberal party room voted". The Australian. Retrieved 15 September 2015. 
  27. ^ a b "Rees replaces Iemma as NSW Premier". The Sydney Morning Herald. 5 September 2008. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  28. ^ "Morris Iemma resigns". DailyTelegraph. Retrieved 2016-05-20. 
  29. ^ "After just a year in parliament, Nathan Rees is NSW Premier". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 20 May 2016. 
  30. ^ a b "Keneally rolls Rees and takes top job". ABC News. 3 December 2009. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  31. ^ "Mills dumped as Giles takes top Territory job". ABC News. Australia. 13 March 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  32. ^ Everingham, Sara (14 March 2013). "Indigenous politician Adam Giles to replace Terry Mills as NT Chief Minister". AM (ABC Radio). Australia. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  33. ^ "Giles denies plot to overthrow Mills". ABC News. Australia. 14 March 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  34. ^ "Northern Territory standoff: Adam Giles refuses to step down as chief minister". 
  35. ^ "Labor to head to leadership spill". ABC News. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  36. ^ "NT Labor leader says she will not resign". ABC News. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  37. ^ "Delia Lawrie: NT Opposition Leader resigns". ABC News. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  38. ^ "Australian Political Chronicle: July–December 1987". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 34 (2): 239–240. June 1988. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8497.1988.tb01176.x. ISSN 0004-9522. 
  39. ^ "Tim Nicholls wins LNP leadership spill against Lawrence Springborg". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC News. 6 May 2016. Retrieved 6 May 2016. 
  40. ^ a b c d e f "Remembering Australia's bloodiest political coups". The Australian. 22 October 2012. Retrieved 3 December 2016. 
  41. ^ "Ted Baillieu resigns as Victorian Premier". 6 March 2013. Retrieved 6 May 2016. 
  42. ^ "A dose of sympathy from one deposed leader to another". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2016-05-06. 
  43. ^ Ferguson, John (9 May 2013). "Ted Baillieu didn't quit top job voluntarily". The Australian. Retrieved 7 May 2016. 
  44. ^ "WA Premier Colin Barnett survives as spill motion defeated". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 20 September 2016. Retrieved 20 September 2016.