Cheatsheet: What crazy business is going down in politics this week?

With all this talk of ‘spills’ and intrigue taking over the news cycle,  Rosie Waterland found herself uncharacteristically interested in politics this week.

I am not interested in politics. I wish I could say that I was. I know it would earn me more respect among my peers and infinitely widen my conversation ability at parties, but it’s just not me.

So when the nation’s political climate turns in such a way that even I’m interested, I need a little help understanding what’s going on. That’s why today, I went to my boss (and former political staffer/current political obsessive) Jamila Rizvi, and asked her to explain all this damn crazy politics business.

I feel like this is a thing that I should understand, and Jamila never (openly) laughs at me for asking even the most inane political questions. When Jamila explains things to me that I don’t get, I really force her to get down to the absolute basics.

That’s what she did when she taught me how banks work (an epic conversation that you can read here), and that’s what she did today when teaching me all things ‘spill’. So now I am helpfully sharing my questions and her answers with you in the pursuit of knowledge and laughs respectively. Enjoy.

Tone. About to get SPILLED.

Here’s how our chat went down:

Rosie (R): In the last 24 hours, politics has for once piqued my interest. But I don’t understand anything about what’s happening, so could you please just give me a run down of why everyone is saying Tony Abbott is going to get kicked out of his chair?

Jamila (J): His chair?

R: I assume there is a big chair that he sits on. Like in Game of Thrones.

J (already slightly concerned): Alright, let’s start with the basis. Abbott is the Prime Minister, you know this, yes?

R: I know this. Continue.

Rosie. Just learned what ‘spill’ means.

J: Okay. Well, yes, to use your imagery – he could potentially be getting kicked out of his… chair.

R: But why is that allowed to happen? It seems like such a colossal stuff-around. The people voted for him. He’s not who I voted for, but he won. So isn’t it better to just let him have a proper go at it?

J: The Prime Minister in Australia isn’t elected directly by the people. Nobody, other than those who live in Tony Abbott’s electorate in the northern suburbs of Sydney got to vote for Tony Abbott specifically.

The public votes at elections for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Whichever political party can reach a majority of members in the House of Representatives, is then able to form a government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister – but it is the parliamentary members of the political party who choose who that leader is, not the voters.


R: The House of Representatives. Are you talking about the people who constantly leave things in my letter box like, “Hey, I’m your local person, vote for me,” and I’m like, “Damn, I really wanted this to be a Pizza Hut discount.”

J: Yes. That’s them. They do other things too, I promise.

R: So wait, let’s just break this down because I’m coming into this blind. The leader of whichever party gets the most peeps into the House of Representatives, is the person who gets to be PM. And this time that was the Liberal party, and ol’ Tone was their boss, so he got to be the big boss.

J: Basically, yes. I’m not going to go into the complexities of the Liberal/National Party Coalition. For the purposes of this conversation, yes. Tony is the big boss.

R: But now, halfway through his turn as PM, Tony’s party have decided they want to boot him. I’m assuming this is because he keeps screwing up by knighting old racist princes and all that.

Prince Phillip. Now a knight.

J: That is one poor decision he has made, which many have seen as a trigger. Prime Minister Abbott has made a lot of decisions that have been very unpopular recently, from the GP co-payment, cuts to education and child care funding, reducing funding for the ABC etc.

Then last weekend his party was decimated at a state level in the Queensland election and many have speculated that national issues were at play in the minds of voters there. So there are now members of Abbott’s party who are concerned that their party is at risk of losing the election and that they personally are at risk of losing their seats in parliament.

People often make their voting decisions based on the leader of the party, or at least this can be incredibly influential, so party members can get very agitated about the leader’s popularity. And the polls for Tony Abbott are not good.

R: So basically, the public kept complaining about how Tony was a big lamo, and now his party have freaked the frig out.

J: Yes, which is why we’ve been hearing talk of a spill.

R: Right, yeah. I’m going to need you to explain to me what a ‘spill’ is. Nothing to do with milk?

J: No milk. A spill, in this case, is when the positions of leaders and deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the federal parliament are declared vacant. Members of parliament who belong to that party then hold a ballot to determine who fills those roles. Because the Liberal Party currently hold government, their parliamentary leader will also become the Prime Minister.


R: And that’s where we’re at now?

J: So far it’s just rumour, speculation and a few people saying they no longer have faith in Tony Abbott but yes, it seems to be coming to a head.

R: If a spill happens, when will it happen? Tonight?

J: Parliament reconvenes in Canberra next week and the Liberals have a party room meeting on Tuesday. If it were to take place, and that seems likely, that would be the time.

Jamila. Trying to keep a straight face.

R: And how will it work? Does someone have to stand up and say “THE SPILL IS ON BITCHES!!” Do people just put up their hands, or what?

J: It’s slightly more formal than that but essentially, yes. Members of the party, not usually those who would actually run for any position, would say they no longer support Abbott as leader and call for a spill of positions. A minimum number of people have to want the positions spilled for the ballot to actually take place.

R: Shit, that would be so scary. Who would do that? Who would stand up in Tony’s face and say, “I hate you, Tony. GET OUT.”

J: It’s already in train. Not in parliament itself but backbenchers have been speaking to the media in the last couple of days to declare that they no longer support the Prime Minister. Some have said they want to see a ballot.

R: Are those the names I’ve been hearing in the news? ‘Mal something’?

J: Mal Brough. He’s a backbencher who has publicly pulled his support for Tony Abbott; or at least heavily qualified it and suggested the party needs to take a new policy direction.

So far, there are two other backbenchers in particular who are also saying they want change; Dennis Jenson and Warren Entsch. By going public with their lack of confidence in Abbott, they have essentially got the ball rolling and talk is turning to who might be a good candidate to replace Tony and whether they have the required 50 per cent of votes within the party room to win.

R: So much intrigue! It’s like House of Cards/Game of Thrones/Gossip Girl.

J: Well…

R: So if the spill happens on Tuesday, who will take over from Tony? Who will be the next to sit in the chair?

J: The two names being floated most are Malcolm Turnbull, a former leader of the party who lost to Abbott in 2009 over the issue of climate change and Julie Bishop, who has been the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party since 2007.


At this stage – as we’re talking now – neither of them have put up their hand to say they want the job. However there are rumours that Malcolm Turnbull has been canvassing his colleagues for support and that Julie Bishop met the Prime Minister on Sunday night past and refused to rule out challenging at that time.

R: But they totally want it! They’re just not saying they want it so then on Tuesday they can be like, “Oh! Me? Well I guess I can step up if the party needs me.” Then they don’t look like bitches who went all Mean Girls on Tony’s ass.

J-Bish. Could be about to THROW DOWN.

J: Once you reach that level of seniority in politics, most members of the House of Representatives have some interest in the top job.

R: They want to sit in the chair.

J: Well there isn’t actually a chair but yes. In politics there’s a prevailing view that naked personal ambition isn’t popular. You have to be seen to be putting the party and the country before yourself.

R: There should be a chair. So they’re refusing to say that they want it, but behind the scenes…

J: It’s very likely that they’re talking to their colleagues and having their supporters and staff make calls on their behalf too.

R: Is Tony definitely out then? Will the spill work on Tuesday? What are the odds that this is actually going to happen?

J: It seems likely that on Tuesday there will be a spill of leadership positions. Then the party room will be asked who would like to nominate people to fill those positions. Abbott will presumedly put his hand up to, you know, keep his job. And Bishop or Turnbull or others may nominate as well if they feel confident they have enough votes to succeed or at least get close to winning.

R: So next week, we’ll either end up with J-Bish or M Turbs as PM?

J: Yes. Or, Tony Abbott could very well win the vote and keep his job. Or, it’s possible nobody else nominates.

R: Shit. That’s awks. Tone would feel so shitty! Imagine having to go to work every day knowing that your peeps tried to boot you! He’d be like, “Awww. You guys suck.”

J: He’d still be the Prime Minister.

R: Right. But if he does win the spill on Tuesday, can’t they just keep calling spills until they get him out?

J: Even if he does survive on Tuesday, you would think it’s the beginning of the end for Abbott unless he can make a huge turnaround in his popularity publicly.


R: Okay I understand this, I understand what’s happening in our country now. But now I have more questions. Like, isn’t this whole thing just fucked? Shouldn’t our government be concentrating on governing and not on backstabbing and Game of Thrones-style intrigue?

J: For businesses, for investors, and for those who keep our economy ticking and provide jobs for others, this makes for a very uncertain environment in which to make decisions. Stability is important for the economy, not just for individuals. 

R: Do you think there should be a rule that we should say to the parties, “Once we vote you in, you’re not allowed to change the boss man? Just get on with your damn jobs?”

J: Well, that would require constitutional change.

R: Is that hard?

J: Very. To amend the Constitution, Australia has to have a referendum where all voters get a say. Two thirds of them have to agree to the change and historically that has been very difficult to achieve.

R: Would it be easier just to change to a Republic then?

J: Becoming a Republic would also require constitutional change. Sorry Rosie.

M-Tubs. Would also like to throw down.

R: But do you think after all this political bullshit the last couple of years, people will kind of have the shits and they will be like, “Can it just be a rule that there’s one person in charge and you all just do your freaking jobs and stop backstabbing each other behind the scenes like mean girls and concentrate on helping me as a citizen?”

J: I think you should consider a future career in legislative drafting because that’s a sentence that should most certainly be in our nation’s Constitution.

R: For realsies though. I have very limited knowledge of this stuff, and lately even I’ve been thinking, “Ugh. We suck. Just get to work, you guys.” You know? I don’t want J-Bish and Malcom concentrating on trying to win a popularity contest in some back room. I want them concentrating on governing.

J: I think a lot of people are frustrated and confused, like you are. They want governments that get on with the business of governing and doing so in their best interests. But for too many years now, the politics of it all has gotten in the way.

R: I feel like I understand this now. But understanding has just made me depressed.

J: Sorry about that.

R: *depressed enlightened silence*