Tony Abbott’s immediate fate is to some extent in his own hands. As chair of the Liberal party room meeting he will decide whether the all-important “spill” motion is a secret ballot or a show of hands.
When the 102 Liberal MPs vote on the motion to declare the leader’s and deputy leader’s positions vacant on Tuesday, it can either be by secret ballot or show of hands. Party whip Philip Ruddock says without written rules, it is up to the leader to decide. “It’s Tony’s call,” he said.
The two West Australian MPs who will move and second the motion, Luke Simpkins and Don Randall, said they believed the spill motion should be voted on by secret ballot.
When Malcolm Turnbull faced his showdown as opposition leader in 2009 he asked former prime minister John Howard, who said it was up to Turnbull and Turnbull opted for a secret ballot.
The decision is important because it would put the ministry in a very difficult position. Voting for an unsuccessful spill would be a vote of no confidence in the executive of which they are a part. There are 19 cabinet ministers, 11 outer ministers and 12 parliamentary secretaries who owe their jobs to the prime minister.
Should the spill ballot be successful, the actual leadership vote would be by secret ballot.
Ruddock, the father of the house who entered parliament in 1973 told Guardian Australia he could not recall other examples of a secret ballot being allowed for a spill motion. But back in 2009 then opposition whip Alex Somlyay could recall two precedents for a secret ballot – in 1974 when Malcolm Fraser was trying to overthrow Bill Snedden and in 1989 when Andrew Peacock was stalking John Howard.
Abbott’s office said the voting procedures “remained unclear”, but senior Liberals said they would be surprised if Abbott tried to force a “show of hands” because he would want the ballot to be seen to be fair.
How many candidates stand could also be critical to the outcome. Abbott’s own surprise victory on December 1 2009, by a single vote, was due to Malcolm Turnbull recontesting, instead of standing aside. Unexpectedly Hockey was eliminated in the first round of voting and then Abbott won the subsequent ballot by 42 votes to 41.