The Myth Of The Ten-Week Election Campaign In 1984

A popular view of the 1984 Federal Election is that Bob Hawke and the ALP suffered a swing against them because of the “long ten-week campaign”.

In just the past few weeks, as speculation about Malcolm Turnbull’s intentions has grown, the claim has been made repeatedly.

SMH

Monash University academic Nick Economou said Hawke “called an election that ran for ten weeks”.

The estimable William Bowe, in Crikey, referred to “the 10-week marathon” in 1984.

Writing in Fairfax Media, Michael Gordon discussed “Bob Hawke’s experience in 1984, when he went into a 10-week campaign with soaring approval ratings and suffered a 2 per cent swing and lost a swag of seats.”

In fact, the two-party swing was 1.46% but let’s not go there just now. Gordon also referred to the October-December 1984 campaign as a “long winter campaign”, but let’s leave that alone also.

A psephology blogger referred to “the ten-week 1984 election campaign”.

Even that digital fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, says it was a “long ten-week campaign” in 1984.

Say something often enough…

In fact, the December 1, 1984 election was held 53 days (7 weeks and 4 days) after Hawke announced it on October 8.

Yes, it’s the longest election campaign in the last 40 years, but it wasn’t ten weeks.

Another part of the mythology cum ignorance around 1984 lies in the reasons for its calling. Yesterday, Michael Gordon said, “Hawke was duly punished by voters for going early, without good reason”.

In fact, as Economou points out, Hawke had very good reason. The election was held early because the 1983 double dissolution had thrown House and Senate elections out of kilter.

This happens because Section 13 of the Constitution stipulates that Senate terms are backdated to the previous July after a double dissolution. This meant that in 1984-85 and 1977-78 the government was obliged to take the House to an early election in order to bring the two houses back into line. The 1975 and 1983 double dissolutions always meant that the House would not run its full three years.

The alternative was to hold a standalone Senate election in one year and a House election the next. Whilst separate half-Senate elections were held in 1953, 1964, 1967 and 1970, it is unlikely any prime minister would now countenance the idea. The political risks and the cost are prohibitive factors.

Hawke referred to the Senate terms issue in his election announcement on October 8, 1984, as did Malcolm Fraser when he announced the 1977 election. Fraser also referred to his unsuccessful attempt to carry a referendum on simultaneous elections in May 1977.

Fraser and Hawke both chose to hold elections in December of 1977 and 1984, although they could each have waited another six months, since new senators could not take their seats until the following July 1. Even then, Fraser would have cut six months off his term, whilst Hawke would have lost a year.

After Hawke’s announcement on Monday, October 8, 1984, the House sat for three more days that week. The Senate met for ten more sitting days over the next fortnight, until it adjourned on October 24. The House was then dissolved on October 26.

This table shows the announcement dates, polling dates, and the number of campaign days for each federal election over the past 50 years.

Election Announcement to Polling Day Times Since 1966
Year Announcement Polling Day Number of Days
1966 August 11 November 26
107 days
1969 August 20 October 25
66 days
1972 October 10 December 02
53 days
1974 April 10 May 18
38 days
1975 November 11 December 13
32 days
1977 October 27 December 10
44 days
1980 September 11 October 18
37 days
1983 February 03 March 05
30 days
1984 October 08 December 01
54 days
1987 May 27 July 11
45 days
1990 February 16 March 24
36 days
1993 February 07 March 13
34 days
1996 January 27 March 02
35 days
1998 August 30 October 03
34 days
2001 October 05 November 10
36 days
2004 August 29 October 09
41 days
2007 October 14 November 24
41 days
2010 July 17 August 21
35 days
2013 August 04 September 07
34 days

 

The table shows that Hawke has the distinction of having called the longest and the second longest election campaigns in the past 40 years. After his 54-day effort in 1984, he announced the July 11, 1987 double dissolution in the House on May 27, a full 45 days.

Interestingly, the 1972 election was just one day shorter than 1984 at 53 days. Prime Minister William McMahon announced the iconic December 2 date in the House on October 10.

Malcolm Fraser’s 1977 election ran for 44 days. He made the announcement in the House on October 27 and polling day was December 10.

However, the table shows that in the past quarter-century from 1990, prime ministers have tended to favour campaigns of between 34 and 36 days, although John Howard ran to 41 days in 2004 and 2007.

The table also shows that election campaigns have steadily shortened over the past half-century.

If we go back 50 years, the elections of 1966 and 1969 ran for 107 and 66 days, between 8 and 15 weeks. They were longer than anything contemplated since. In both cases, the dates were widely rumoured before the announcements.

Age

On August 11, 1966, Prime Minister Harold Holt “tentatively” confirmed November 26 as the election date, 107 days away. He laid out a legislative plan for the next couple of months and suggested the election campaign would run for three weeks before polling day. He confirmed the date again on September 28. As Holt indicated, the government ran a campaign on external affairs and defence issues, namely the Vietnam War. A month before the election, politics was dominated by the conveniently-timed visit of President Lyndon Johnson on October 20-22.

In a different media era, elections tended not to dominate the news in the way they do now. Whereas today’s media is obsessed with election talk, the newspapers in September-October 1966 barely mentioned it.

Of course, one of the problems with assessing the length of a campaign is knowing when to start. I could have chosen the date of dissolution of the House. However, the date of the official announcement by the prime minister seems the most sensible starting point. Speculation may have swirled for weeks beforehand but the firing of the starter’s gun makes most sense for timing purposes.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard came close to breaking all the records when she announced a September 14, 2013 election on January 30, 2013. That would have been a 227 day campaign – just over 32 weeks – although Gillard made her announcement in the vain hope that the campaign would date from the dissolution of the parliament. In any event, Kevin Rudd’s counter-coup against Gillard ensured that the 2013 election officially ran for just 34 days.

As for why Hawke didn’t do as well as the ALP had hoped in 1984? Most people who remember the campaign would probably agree that Peacock performed well and Hawke didn’t. Others would argue that governments often get pulled back after a strong initial win. Others would argue for a range of issues influencing the result. The longish election campaign may well have been a factor. But it wasn’t a debilitating ten-week campaign.

Note: This post was amended on March 28 to correct the date of the 1966 election announcement. My thanks to Stephen Murray for trawling further back through old editions of The Age than I did and finding the official, albeit “tentative”, announcement by Holt.

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