Hypocrisy, plotting and misogyny: Explaining the brutal nature of Australian party leadership

Posted on behalf of Mark Bennister

It would appear absurd and self-defeating to remove a sitting Prime Minister less than 3 months before a general election and return a leader who had himself been removed from office only 3 years previously. After all divided parties do not win elections. The Rudd-Gillard soap opera may be a personal battle for supremacy of a dysfunctional Australian Labor party, but its roots lie in systematic and elite driven party politics. The simple answer as to why the Australian Labor party ousted Gillard this week and Rudd in 2010 is that they could and they had previous. Since 1945, there have been several challenges to sitting Prime Ministers in the party room and numerous examples of party leaders being turned out of office in both main parties. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton was challenged shortly after winning the 1969 election and again in 1971 when a tied vote famously saw him casting the deciding vote against himself. Andrew Peacock failed to unseat Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1981. Under Labor Bob Hawke managed to see off Paul Keating’s first party room challenge in 1991 but after a destabilising 6 month backbench campaign from Keating, lost the premiership. Rudd’s comeback is not so unusual. As Pat Weller observed the vanquished in Australian politics are reluctant to leave the stage. Challengers regroup and fight again as Keating did in 1991, but also leaders can hang around to fight to regain the crown as John Howard did successfully and Peacock unsuccessfully in the Liberal party.

The political culture of party leadership in Australia is ‘brutal’. The end for Gillard’s leadership of the party and country was swift, as Rudd’s first effort had been. A leadership ‘spill’ can be organised a short notice and defenestration is swift and ruthless. The oligarchic nature of party organisation ensures that party leaders need to satisfy, placate, manipulate or cajole their peers to survive in post. Research into leadership selection has shown that leadership selection and ejection, concentrated as it is within the Federal Parliamentary Party marks the ALP and Liberal party out. Furthermore the institutionalisation of the ALP’s factions is not only more entrenched than any other Australian party, but arguably any other social democratic party in the Western world. Australian party politics has managed to resist the trend towards expanding leadership selection beyond the parliamentary party to the membership. The short three year electoral cycle is cited as the most common reason for maintaining the status quo. Both main parties cannot afford to indulge in extended leadership selection and be ‘leaderless’. So the power to select the party leader remains firmly in the hands of the parliamentary caucus with this concentration of elite power exacerbating the role of factions within the ALP. Former party leader Mark Latham called Labor a ‘virtual party controlled by a handful of machine men’.

As Rudd and Gillard found out, once leadership speculation gets going in Canberra a cocktail of party power brokers and political journalists can easily destabilise an incumbent Prime Minister. The devastating critique of Rudd by journalist David Marr in early June 2010 represented a tipping point in Rudd’s fortunes giving rise to the concerted internal party opposition. Gillard, with the opinion polls tanking for some time, suffered from Rudd’s constant sniping and a strain of virulent misogyny peddled from the Opposition and media. Running a minority government, fighting Rudd within the ALP and facing an aggressive centre-right bully in Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as well as the constant media attacks meant she had little chance. Once the speculation is set in motion it becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, as leadership consolidation is an elusive commodity in Australian politics and Federal MPs only see self-preservation.

Unedifying and undemocratic it may be but the parliamentary caucus dynamic and machine politics create an Australian leadership setting in which hypocrisy, deceit and plotting are endemic.

Cross-posted at Political Insight

Mark Bennister is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. His monograph Prime Minister in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia was published in 2012 by Palgrave. He occasionally tweets @MarkBennister

Prime Ministers in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia

New book by Dr Mark Bennister, Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit (Palgrave, 2012) ISBN: 9780230273214

Tony Blair and John Howard appear to be incongruous choices for comparative analysis. Howard was from the ideological right of Australian politics, with a leadership style based on experience and an uncharismatic, cautious, bureaucratic persona. Blair was the charismatic, new progressive centre-left leader with an emotional, thespian style, stressing vision and moral imperatives. Yet, it is possible to identify both personal and institutional similarities. This book argues that both leaders stretched the institutional resources available to them and enhanced their own personal capital. Over time, the political capital generated by each inevitably fell away to the extent that they both (although for contrasting reasons) left office in 2007. Prime Ministers in Powerinvestigates prime ministerial predominance in Britain and Australia. It is a timely addition to the scholarly material on political leadership, adding a comparative dimension by using case study analysis of two prime ministers in similar political systems. How did these two prime ministers establish such predominant positions? How far can prime ministers stretch the institutions within which they work and how much of an impact does the office-holder have on the office? What conclusions can be drawn from the comparison of the two prime ministers? What are the consequences and costs of such predominance? This book addresses these questions, offering a comparative perspective on the nature of prime ministerial leadership.



  • Introduction: Comparing Prime Ministers


  • Cabinet as a Resource
  • Prime Minster and Party
  • Controlling and Strengthening the Centre


  • Prime Ministers: Personal Capacity
  • Splendid Isolation: Personalisation and Autonomy


  • Comparative Perspectives and Conclusions

Publisher and purchasing details:


‘Mark Bennister’s book will be essential reading for all students of prime ministerial power and executive governance. He moves the debate onto new territory, using a comparative approach (looking at Tony Blair in Britain and John Howard in Australia) and integrating analysis of institutional and party factors, personal skills and leadership styles. Bennister is a careful, systematic and forensic analyst. The book offers many insights into Blair and Howard’s long years of predominance but works successfully also as a primer on how to go about making sense in general of Prime Ministers as political leaders.’  (Kevin Theakston, Professor of British Government, University of Leeds)

‘This book makes a significant new contribution to our understanding of comparative political leadership. Through an exhaustive and clear analysis of the personal and political resources at their disposal, it reveals how two very different individuals working in distinctive political settings – former British prime minister Tony Blair and the ex-premier of Australia, John Howard – each found ways of stretching their power through personalized electoral appeals, although each was ultimately constrained by party colleagues. Mark Bennister has produced a valuable new study that deserves the attention of all serious students and scholars of political leadership.’  (Paul Webb, Professor of Politics, University of Sussex)

‘Mark Bennister’s comparative study of Tony Blair and John Howard is a revelation. Few are the books that allow us to see across national difference to recognise the core elements that empower or limit prime ministers. Rarer still are those that can overcome a narrow focus on institutions, or personalities, or the core executive to encompass all of those things and adroitly to demonstrate that only through understanding their interaction will we see how power is gained and sustained. This is a major contribution to prime ministerial studies and to leadership analysis at large.’ (James Walter, Professor of Political Science, Monash University, Melbourne)