As the Liberal Party reels from a bruising week talk has again started on whether it is time to make it harder to depose the party’s leaders.
Reform could not come soon enough. Supporters deserve the certainty that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for its leader.
Politicians might tell themselves voters back the party, not the leader, but the electorate does expect the Prime Minister to set the nation’s tone and direction.
Politicians expect that, too. That is one reason why conservatives last week criticised Malcolm Turnbull for being too progressive.
It is true that in a Westminster political system parties have traditionally reserved the right to switch leaders at a moment’s notice. But the long periods of rule Bob Hawke, and John Howard in particular, enjoyed, has encouraged Australians to expect parties to stick with their leaders.
It is easy for politicians to forget with time that John Howard’s success was not always down to personal popularity. In fact, he was willing to be outspoken and wear bad polling. It was not always clear he could win elections against resurgent Labor leaders.
At those times the party and its factional heavyweights had to decide to stick with him. It was a leap of faith no prime minister has since enjoyed.
Labor has reformed its leadership rules in an attempt to learn this lesson, though the Liberals proven less enthusiastic.
One idea floated in last week’s wash-up by Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam was to tackle a rule that requires only two parliamentary members to bring about a leadership spill.
He was not necessarily advocating Labor’s model be adopted, which would require 75 per cent of a vote to change a leader in government and 60 per cent in opposition.
But reforms should be encouraged, and not only because they would alleviate some backbenchers’ frustrations. It would also alleviate the public’s concerns.
Without solid leadership, a cloud of uncertainty will continue to hang over the Liberal Party long after Turnbull is gone.
- Tom O’Callaghan, journalist
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