1911 Was The Last Time A Government Won A Seat From The Opposition. Oh, Really?

On numerous occasions last week, I heard journalists and media commentators say that no government has won a by-election from the opposition since 1911.

It was repeated over and over. It was asserted again on Insiders yesterday and on Sky News last night.

The context, of course, is the batch of four by-elections – in Mayo, Longman, Braddon and Fremantle – that are about to take place following the resignations flowing from the High Court’s Section 44 decision on former Senator Katy Gallagher. A fifth by-election will take place due to the resignation for personal reasons of the ALP’s Tim Hammond in Perth.

The Liberal Party has decided not to contest Perth or Fremantle, so these seats should now be easily retained by the ALP.

The Liberals are favoured to retake their traditional stronghold of Mayo, especially given the Xenophon implosion.

So attention centres on Longman, in Queensland, and Braddon, in Tasmania. Can the ALP hang on to these two seats it won back last time? Could the government take one or two seats off the opposition?

A swing of just 0.8% would see Longman return to the government. Braddon needs 1.5%. It’s do-able but it’s tricky. Afterall, it hasn’t happened since 1911…

Well, no…

The Myth of 1911

In 1911, Andrew Fisher’s Labor government was in office. Elected at the fourth federal election in 1910, it was the first majority Labor government and the first majority government since Federation in 1901. It was Fisher’s second of three terms as prime minister.

There were three by-elections in 1911, in February, March and November. Not one of them saw the government win a seat off the opposition. One saw the ALP retain Batman, whilst another saw the Liberal Party retain North Sydney. In the third, the Labor government LOST Boothby to the Liberal Party, following the death of External Affairs minister Lee Batchelor.

There were two other by-elections during the life of the Fourth Parliament (1910-1913). In 1910 the Liberal Party retained Kooyong, whilst in 1912 the ALP retained Werriwa.

So, 1911 simply isn’t relevant to the question of when a government last took a seat off the opposition.

Where does the 1911 story come from, I wonder. Who said it first? And why has it not been challenged? This is all public, historical and verified information that is freely available. Is it that hard to check?

And the Correct Answer is…

There has been just one by-election where an incumbent government has taken a seat off the official Opposition:

  • December 18, 1920: The Nationalist government of William Morris Hughes won the by-election for Kalgoorlie (WA) from the Labor opposition.

The successful Nationalist candidate was George Foley, shown below:

Foley
Picture credit: Psephos


*

1929 Deserves An Honourable Mention

In addition, there is just one other by-election where an incumbent government has won a seat it didn’t already hold:

  • December 14, 1929: The Scullin Labor government won the by-election for Franklin (Tas), following the death of the incumbent independent member.

The successful Labor candidate was Charles Frost, shown below:

Frost
Picture credit: Psephos

Whilst Franklin was a seat usually held by the Nationalists, in 1929 William McWilliams held it as an independent. The Scullin government’s success did not come at the expense of the official Opposition.

KALGOORLIE – 1920

In early November 1920, Hugh Mahon, the ALP member for Kalgoorlie, spoke in Melbourne to a meeting organised by the Irish Ireland League. He attacked the British presence in Ireland, calling it “this bloody and accursed Empire”. Four days later, at the behest of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, Mahon was expelled from the House of Representatives for “seditious and disloyal utterances” that made him “unfit” to remain a member of parliament.

Mahon is the only person to have ever been expelled from the parliament. It was a particularly vicious assault by Hughes. The two men had served alongside each other as Labor members since 1901. Each of them had been ministers in the first Federal Labor government under Chris Watson in 1904, Hughes as Minister for External Affairs and Mahon as Postmaster-General. In 1916, Hughes left the ALP over conscription and joined with the Liberals to become the leader of the Nationalists.

Mahon lost the by-election to the Nationalist candidate, George Foley, by 443 votes, 51.4% to 48.6%. There were no other candidates. Foley was defeated at the 1922 general election and Kalgoorlie returned to the ALP for the next 36 years.

FRANKLIN – 1929

Labor had never held Franklin before 1929. The sitting member, William McWilliams, was an independent who had first been elected in 1903 as a Revenue Tariff candidate. He was variously an Anti-Socialist, Liberal, Nationalist and Country Party member until 1922. He was the first leader of the Country Party but he was removed from the leadership in 1921. Running as an independent, McWilliams lost his seat in 1922 to an official Nationalist candidate. He regained Franklin in 1928 as an independent. Ten days after being re-elected in 1929, McWilliams died suddenly, aged 73.

The newly-elected Scullin Labor government had won a landslide victory on October 12, 1929. Its success carried over into the Franklin by-election just two months later. By this time, the Wall Street Crash had taken place and the Depression crisis had arrived. Labor’s candidate in Franklin, Charles Frost, won 44.5% of the primary vote and 51.9% of the two-party-preferred vote. Frost was defeated in 1931 but regained the seat in 1934 and held it until 1946. He was a minister in the Curtin government in the 1940s.

Is Kalgoorlie A Good Omen For The Turnbull Government?

Clearly not. The circumstances of the Kalgoorlie by-election were unique and can never be repeated, since the Parliament no longer has the power to expel its own members. The arguments and emotions, political and otherwise, employed by Hughes in his attack on Mahon are peculiar to their time, stemming from sectarian and political divisions during World War One. Even our partisan times do not compare to the divisiveness of those days.

For different reasons, the Franklin by-election of 1929 offers no guide to the current situation. Whereas the Scullin government was newly elected with a landslide majority, the Turnbull government is in its second term with a record to defend and a bare majority of one seat. The goodwill that can attach to a new government has no relevance to the current situation. Furthermore, the economic crisis confronting Scullin has no current equivalent.

Some Statistical Context

  • To date, there have been 152 by-elections since 1901. This will soon rise to 157. The full list is available here.
  • In 117 of these by-elections, the incumbent party or independent was re-elected. That’s 76.97%.
  • In 35 by-elections, the incumbent party was defeated. That’s 23.02%.

The 35 Changes of Party Complexion

  • The ALP has lost 8 by-elections to the Liberals in their various guises as the Commonwealth Liberal Party (1909-16), Nationalist Party (1917-31), United Australia Party (1931-44) or Liberal Party (1944-present). It lost one to the Lang Labor forces in NSW, one to the Country Party, one to an Independent, and one to the Greens.
  • The Liberals, in their various incarnations, have lost 9 by-elections to the ALP. In another 5, the seat shifted to the Country Party, thus staying in the family.
  • The Country Party, which became the National Country Party and is now The Nationals, has lost one by-election to the Liberals, 2 to the ALP and one to an independent.
  • Independent members have been defeated twice in by-elections, once by the Liberals and once by the ALP.
  • The Protectionists lost 2 seats to the ALP in by-elections in 1904 (Melbourne) and 1908 (Adelaide).
  • The Free Traders, later rebranded Anti-Socialists, lost one by-election (Riverina) to the Protectionists in 1904.

The Near Misses

There are three by-elections which were nearly examples of governments winning seats off their opposition. But they’re not.

  • Melbourne – 1904 – the by-election of March 30, 1904, saw the Deakin Protectionist government lose Melbourne to the ALP, which held it for the next 106 years. If the by-election had taken place a month later, the Watson Labor government would have been in office. In any event, the ALP supported the Protectionists in office, whilst not holding any ministries.
  • Riverina – 1904 – the by-election of May 18, 1904, saw the former Protectionist member, John Chanter, regain the seat he had held since 1901. Having lost by five votes to a Free Trader at the 1903 election, Chanter challenged the result in the High Court, which ordered a new election. Whilst the election was ordered when the Deakin Protectionist government was in office, it was held when the Watson Labor government was in office.
  • Maranoa – 1921 – the by-election of July 30, 1921 saw the Country Party win a seat from the ALP, following the death of James Page. Whilst the Hughes Nationalist government still held office, it was not in a formal coalition with the Country Party. In this case, the official opposition lost a seat to the crossbenches, not the government. The Country Party entered into a formal coalition with the Nationalists in 1923, an arrangement that was contingent on Hughes being replaced by Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
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