How the vote on Tony Abbott’s leadership works – and what’s expected to happen

Treasure Joe Hockey, Deputy leader Julie Bishop and PM Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty Images

Prime Minister Tony Abbott made it clear on Sunday the vote on the motion to spill the Liberal Party leadership on Monday morning would be a secret ballot.

The assurance of a secret vote when Abbott is entitled to ask for a show of hands is significant, as MPs aren’t reduced to putting their careers on the line through a show of hands.

All 102 MPs and Senators who are members of the Liberal partyroom are expected to attend the meeting at 9am in Canberra (though there’s a possibility one might not be able to make it).

The motion

As Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott will chair the meeting and there’ll be a single item of business: the motion to spill the leadership, which will be put to the room by MP Luke Simpkins and seconded by Don Randall.


Simpkins and Randall are both from Western Australia. Randall is seen as close to WA Senator David Johnston, the former defence minister who was the biggest casualty in Abbott’s cabinet reshuffle in December. Johnston was widely regarded as an under-performer and famously lobbed a bomb into the politics of the Australian defence establishment shortly before he was removed, saying he wouldn’t trust the Australian Submarine Corporation to build a canoe. Simpkins gave a speech in 2011 in which he said Australians were on the path to being unwittingly converted to Islam by eating Halal-certified meat being sold in major supermarkets.

Those moving for the spill may be relatively lowly-ranked but following their decision to move on Friday their cause was given a significant boost by Arthur Sinodinos, the respected Senator and former chief of staff to John Howard, who has indicated he will support it.

Chief government whip Philip Ruddock has indicated there will be no speeches before the vote, as the motion to spill the leadership is a procedural matter. Ballot papers will be handed out, MPs will fill them out and the count will be led by Ruddock.

The result scenarios

Anything lower than 15 or perhaps 20 votes in favour of the motion would be an epic squib, and will mean Abbott retains a fair degree of authority. He will be damaged – indeed he said he was already “chastened”, on ABC TV on Sunday evening – but a small vote in favour certainly buys him time to improve his performance, probably through the delivery of the federal budget in May at least, before any other challenge if one emerges.

Challenger apparent Malcolm Turnbull / Getty

There has been talk of 30 to 40 votes being behind the dissidents. A vote in this region would leave Abbott leading a clearly divided partyroom and it would likely just be a matter of time before the assassins come again. A vote in the high 40s would indicate a huge fissure in the party and some might say it would leave Abbott in an untenable position.

Fifty-two votes or more in favour of the motion means the leadership is declared vacant. That outcome means it’s on, to borrow a phrase, like Donkey Kong.

Nominations for the leadership are invited and if it gets to that point, communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to stand.

The process from there is unpredictable because it’s possible that Abbott could withdraw, or that there could be a third candidate as there was in 2009 when Abbott became leader. The first vote was contested between Abbott, Turnbull, and now-treasurer Joe Hockey, who was eliminated after the first ballot. It’s one reason why the absence of a clear challenger with a clear plan has made the spill look increasingly wobbly as the partyroom meeting approaches.

Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty.

The deputy leader Julie Bishop and Abbott’s ministers have been declaring their support for him, ostensibly in the interests of cabinet solidarity, on the Simpkins motion. If they all vote as they’ve publicly declared, along with the whips, Abbott has around 40 votes which gets him pretty close to the majority 52 he needs.

The secret vote, of course, creates the possibility for some frontbench treachery. Hockey said on Sunday anyone who votes against the PM in the spill motion should subsequently declare their hand and resign as a matter of Westminster convention.

“I would expect that if a minister was incapable of supporting the government, the minister in question would’ve spoken to me, and none of them have,” Abbott said on Sunday.

“But nevertheless this is an opportunity for people to do what they genuinely believe is right for the government and for the country.”

Abbott’s decision to bring forward the vote on the spill motion to Monday morning instead of the originally-scheduled Tuesday has drastically compressed the time available for Turnbull to secure momentum. While he hasn’t publicly declared himself willing to stand, Turnbull’s description of the change of schedule as a “captain’s call” was a clear dig at the PM and a signal to disgruntled MPs that he’s available.

A Newspoll out overnight has the potential to shift the conversations, as well as the ever-present brute force of political ambition.

We’ll have live coverage as it all unfolds on Business Insider.

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