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2013 And The Years Of Three Prime Ministers

This morning on ABC News Breakfast, a former newspaper editor told viewers that in 2013 Australia had three prime ministers “for only the second time in history”.

In the interests of accuracy, and because this is not the first time I’ve heard someone get it wrong this year, here are the figures.

The Years of Three Prime Ministers

There have been 5 years in the history of the Australian federation when three prime ministers were separately sworn into the position. They are: 1904, 1939, 1941, 1945 and 2013.

The Years of Three Prime Ministers
Year First PM Second PM Third PM
Alfred Deakin
defeated in House
John “Chris” Watson
defeated in House
George Reid
Free Trade
Joseph Lyons
United Australia Party
Earle Page
Country Party
relinquished to new leader
Robert Menzies
United Australia Party
Robert Menzies
United Australia Party
resigned leadership
Arthur Fadden
Country Party
defeated in House
John Curtin
John Curtin
Frank Forde
relinquished to new leader
Ben Chifley
Julia Gillard
deposed by party
Kevin Rudd
defeated at general election
Tony Abbott
Liberal Party


1904 – The System Works

The prime ministerial changes of 1904 are notable because it was the first time government changed hands as a result of legislative difficulties in the House of Representatives. Parliamentary manoeuvres were central to each change of government, as was the role of the Governor-General in refusing requests for a dissolution of the House.

Each of the three major groups in the House of Representatives – the Protectionists, the Free Traders and the ALP – provided a prime minister and a government in 1904. Watson led the first Australian federal Labor administration, in the first change of government since the Protectionists took office under Barton in 1901. Reid became the sole Free Trade prime minister in Australian history.

The peaceful and smooth changes of government involving these three groups demonstrated that the Australian Constitution worked. Like Federation itself, these moments were pivotal.

Deakin referred to the political parties as three cricket teams – the “three elevens” – jostling to play in one match. He played the crucial role in “fusing” the Protectionists and the Free Traders into the Liberal Party in 1909 and ushering in the two-party system Australia has known since.

1939 – The First Prime Minister To Die In Office

Joseph Lyons was the first Australian prime minister to die in office, in April 1939. He was in his eighth year as PM and had won three elections. He was just days off becoming Australia’s longest-serving prime minister since Federation.

As leader of the coalition’s junior partner, Page was sworn in as prime minister following the death of Lyons, pending the UAP’s election of a new leader. The occasion is remembered now because of a vitriolic attack Page made on Menzies, although this did not prevent the UAP from electing Menzies.

World War II began five months later. Menzies would go on to lead the government to a narrow victory in the 1940 election. In a hung parliament, the coalition depended on the support of two independents.

1941 – War And Politics

The prime ministerial changes of 1941 are arguably the most significant of the five years shown in the table. Like 1904, each of the three major groups in the House – United Australia Party, Country Party and ALP – provided a prime minister, and a government fell on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The resignation of Menzies was forced upon him by dissatisfaction with his leadership inside the UAP. Fadden became PM partly because it was deemed untenable to restore the 79-year-old Billy Hughes, now leader of the UAP, to the post he had last held in 1923.

Fadden, in turn, was brought down in a vote on the government’s budget by the two independents who held the balance of power in the House. All this happened whilst Australia was at war and just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

The ructions inside the UAP contributed to its collapse and the eventual return of Menzies through his creation of the Liberal Party in 1944. John Curtin is now regarded as a significant war-time leader and a Labor hero.

1945 – Another Death And A Labor Transition

Of the five years, 1945 is the only one in which all three prime ministers came from the same party.

Following the death of John Curtin, the ALP’s deputy leader, Frank Forde, was sworn in, pending the election of a new leader. It was still war-time and there was some, probably misplaced, concern about the authority of decisions made by an Acting PM. Forde relinquished the position following the Caucus election of Ben Chifley as the ALP’s new leader.

Chifley went on to win the 1946 election and the Curtin-Chifley era lasted for 8 years. Following criticism of Forde’s role in military demobilisation, he lost his seat of Capricornia at the 1946 election.

2013 – Internal Upheaval Resolved By An Election

The Gillard-Rudd-Abbott dance of 2013 is unique because it involved a prime minister being deposed by the man she herself had deposed three years earlier. It is also the only year of three prime ministers that included a general election.

Despite the Labor government’s minority position in the hung parliament, it survived the leadership ructions and completed a full term. It was left to the electorate to pass judgment on the government’s record and leadership.

By the end of 2013, Tony Abbott had been elected prime minister and both Rudd and Gillard had left the parliament.

1967-68: Three Weeks And Three Prime Ministers

An accident of timing prevented the events of 1967-68 qualifying for inclusion on this list. With the disappearance of Harold Holt on December 17, 1967, the Country Party leader, John McEwen, became prime minister for three weeks until the Liberal Party chose John Gorton as its new leader on January 9, 1968.

This period of three prime ministers has most in common with the events of 1939, including a denunciation by the Country Party leader of a prospective Liberal leader. Unlike Page’s assault on Menzies in 1939, McEwen’s threat to walk out of any government led by William McMahon was successful in delaying McMahon’s elevation to the leadership.

The Liberal Party created history in choosing its Senate leader, John Gorton, as the new prime minister. Gorton subsequently contested the by-election for Holt’s seat and moved to the House of Representatives. For the first time since 1901, Australia briefly (February 2-23) had a prime minister who was not a member of either house of parliament.

The Years of Two Prime Ministers – UPDATED

There have been 26 years with two prime ministers each. They are:

  • 1903: Barton, Deakin – Barton retired, appointed Justice of the High Court
  • 1905: Reid, Deakin – Reid defeated in House of Representatives
  • 1908: Deakin, Fisher – Deakin defeated in House of Representatives
  • 1909: Fisher, Deakin – Fisher defeated in House of Representatives
  • 1910: Deakin, Fisher – Deakin defeated at general election
  • 1913: Fisher, Cook – Fisher defeated at general election
  • 1914: Cook, Fisher – Cook defeated at general election
  • 1915: Fisher, Hughes – Fisher retired, appointed High Commissioner to London
  • 1923: Hughes, Bruce – Hughes deposed as party leader following general election
  • 1929: Bruce, Scullin – Bruce defeated at general election; loses own seat
  • 1932: Scullin, Lyons – Scullin defeated at general election
  • 1949: Chifley, Menzies – Chifley defeated at general election
  • 1966: Menzies, Holt – Menzies retired voluntarily
  • 1967: Holt, McEwen – Holt disappeared, presumed drowned
  • 1968: McEwen, Gorton – McEwen relinquished position to new leader
  • 1971: Gorton, McMahon – Gorton deposed as party leader
  • 1972: McMahon, Whitlam – McMahon defeated at general election
  • 1975: Whitlam, Fraser – Whitlam dismissed by Governor-General
  • 1983: Fraser, Hawke – Fraser defeated at general election
  • 1991: Hawke, Keating – Hawke deposed as party leader
  • 1996: Keating, Howard – Keating defeated at general election
  • 2007: Howard, Rudd – Howard defeated at general election; loses own seat
  • 2010: Rudd, Gillard – Rudd deposed as party leader
  • 2015: Abbott, Turnbull – Abbott deposed as party leader
  • 2018: Turnbull, Morrison – Turnbull deposed as party leader
  • 2022: Morrison, Albanese – Morrison defeated at general election

The Years of One Prime Minister – UPDATED

There have been 92 years with one prime minister each. They are:

  • 1901, 1902: Barton
  • 1906, 1907: Deakin
  • 1911, 1912: Fisher
  • 1916, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922: Hughes
  • 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928: Bruce
  • 1930, 1931: Scullin
  • 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938: Lyons
  • 1940, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965: Menzies
  • 1942, 1943, 1944: Curtin
  • 1946, 1947, 1948: Chifley
  • 1969, 1970: Gorton
  • 1973, 1974: Whitlam
  • 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982: Fraser
  • 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990: Hawke
  • 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995: Keating
  • 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006: Howard
  • 2008, 2009: Rudd
  • 2011, 2012: Gillard
  • 2014: Abbott
  • 2016, 2017: Turnbull
  • 2019, 2020, 2021: Morrison
  • 2023: Albanese

NOTE: These figures only include prime ministers who were commissioned by the Governor-General to hold the position in their own right. It does not include those occasions when a deputy prime minister or other minister has acted as prime minister. Acting prime ministers fill the position when the prime minister is overseas, holidaying, ill or incapacitated in some way.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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