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Explainer: how does a leadership spill work?

No blood was spilt today in parliament, but we still had a leadership spill. Spill image from

After a harrowing day in parliament, the Labor party saw a leadership spill and Prime Minister Gillard was returned as leader.

The only thing was… no one contested the top spot and Julia Gillard’s name the only one on the ballot. Kevin Rudd declared at the 11th hour that he would not stand as a candidate.

A “spill” for most people would be something to clear up, but what was happening this afternoon behind closed doors was something quite different.

So how does the process of a leadership challenge work? Monash’s Zareh Ghazarian takes a look at the process behind the leadership crisis.

What is a leadership spill and how does it work?

A leadership spill is brought about in cases where there is disquiet and discontent about current leadership. This is something that prime minister Gillard has been dealing with for quite some time.

There’s been constant speculation about her leadership and of course, there’s been Rudd in the background reminding voters that he was Prime Minister, before Gillard rolled him last time.

So that’s what brought it on today.

But as for the technicalities of the spill, the prime minister convenes a meeting. The meeting is attended by all Labor members of parliament, that includes senators. All positions are then declared vacant and then they will call for nominations for leader and deputy leader of the party.

If they were in opposition, it would just be the opposition leader. But of course, the extra significance here is the person that becomes the leader of the governing party becomes Prime Minister.

So how do they cast their vote? Is it a secret ballot?

If there is more than one candidate, it is a secret ballot. There will be people appointed to be tellers, they will count the votes, it will all be done in secret and no one will know who they voted for.

In some famous cases of past spills, some people have said that they will vote for one person and have written that name on the ballot paper. But as they are about the throw their ballot paper in the ballot box, they cross it out and put someone else’s name on it.

So it’s done by secret ballot and then it’s counted, and who ever has the 50% plus one majority becomes the leader. In the 102 member Labor caucus that means at least 52 votes .

When the vote is cast, is the leader bound to stick the result?

If a candidate doesn’t win the majority, they will no longer be the leader and no longer prime minister. The person who does win a majority will be and they would need to be sworn in by the governor general.

But it’s an easy thing for parties to get around, it’s not a change in terms of numbers in the parliament, it’s just a change of personnel. So it’s not such a major problem for them.

Does a hung parliament affect a spill?

Well, the parliament tests that support and this will mean the incoming prime minister will need to get the assurance of all the crossbenchers that they will continue to support the party in forming government.

And they only have to promise the incoming leader and their party two things. First that they will vote with them on the budget and they will vote with them on motions of no confidence.

So as long as the incoming prime minister can guarantee their budgets will pass and they can survive no confidence motions, they can govern. And technically they don’t even have to pass any other pieces of legislation ever as long as they can get those two things done.

So what would you see if you were a fly on the wall in caucus today?

Well, it’s fairly unceremonious. As observers, we think there’s some great magic going on but there really isn’t.

Generally it’s just a very prosaic paper ballot. Each candidate is asked to make a short speech about why they should be elected.

And then MPs are asked to write down the name of the candidate that they want to win and put it in a box.

It’s very, very back to basic democracy and it certainly doesn’t have the pomp and ceremony of other sorts of electoral contests.

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