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Fact Checking Mr. Windsor: Only One Majority Parliament In The First 20 Years Of Federation?

In an election pitch for his return as an independent member in the NSW electorate of New England, Tony Windsor last night told viewers of the ABC’s QandA that country voters needed to use their clout “more strategically”.


In putting his argument for having more independent members in minority parliaments, Windsor claimed that “in the first 20 years of Federation there was only one majority parliament”.

  • Listen to Windsor (52s)

Tony Windsor on QandA

“There hasn’t been a parliament since Federation where a country member of that parliament hasn’t held the balance of power. What we’re talking about here…is political clout, not abusing that clout but using it much more strategically. Country people tend not to do that. They tend to be loyal to one side of politics and they’re taken for granted by both. Have a look at the way in which our system works. The mention of parties wasn’t in our Constitution at all. The first 20 years of Federation there was only one majority parliament – only one. We’ve got to look at the way we use our democracy to advantage country people – not disadvantage city people, but get our fair share.”

Eight Parliaments In Twenty Years: There were 8 parliaments elected in the first 20 years of Federation: 1901, 1903, 1906, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1919.

FACT CHECK: Four of these parliaments produced a majority government: 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917. A fifth, the parliament elected in 1919, was effectively a non-Labor majority.

Complete list of House of Representatives election results since 1901

The 1910 election was historic because it not only produced the first majority parliament since 1901 but also the first majority Labor government.

In 1913, the Labor government of Andrew Fisher was narrowly defeated and the Liberals under Joseph Cook secured a one-seat majority.

In 1914, after Cook’s poorly-timed double dissolution election, the ALP returned to government – and a third term for Andrew Fisher – with a comfortable majority.

In 1916, the ALP, now led by Billy Hughes, split over the issue of conscription. At the 1917 election, Hughes led the new Nationalist Party, composed of the former Liberals and renegade Labor members, to a landslide victory.

In 1919, the Nationalists were technically one seat short of a majority. In practice, the presence of two Country Party members and 10 anti-Labor rural members meant the government was secure.

Windsor is not just wrong on the arithmetic

Windsor should have told his audience that only the first three parliaments after Federation – over a period of 9 years, not 20 – produced no majority government.

More importantly, rather than using this as an argument for more minority parliaments in contemporary times, he could have pointed out the effect those minority parliaments had on the Australian system.

Alfred Deakin referred to the three-way split between Labor, Protectionists and Free Traders as akin to “three elevens” all jostling to take the pitch in a cricket match. He argued that two of the “elevens” would have to merge, if they were to have any chance of fending off the growing numbers of the Labor Party. This took place in 1909 when the Protectionists joined forces (“Fusion”) with the Free Traders (now rebadged as Anti-Socialists) and became the Commonwealth Liberal Party.

Far from an acknowledgement of the value of independent members and minority parliaments, Fusion suggested that the politicians of the time saw that stability would only come from two major parties competing for control of the Parliament.

Moreover, the desire for stability and predictability in the party system led to the introduction of preferential voting in 1918. This allowed the Nationalists and the emerging Country Party to exchange preferences and maximise their chances in elections against the ALP. The logical result of this was the formal establishment of the Coalition in 1923, an arrangement that persists to this day.

Parties in the Constitution

Windsor is correct that political parties weren’t mentioned in the 1901 Constitution. Nor are a lot of things, including a prime minister. This simply indicates that Westminster-based parliamentary systems have always operated via a series of constitutional conventions.

The absence of any mention of political parties in the Constitution has more to do with those conventions and with a 19th century view of politics as the province of gentlemen of a certain class who formed governments through loose and fluid arrangements with one another. Whilst fetchingly idealistic, this was a view that quickly died when confronted by the disciplined operation of the Labor Party.

Telling the voters that “there hasn’t been a parliament since Federation where a country member of that parliament hasn’t held the balance of power” is a nice line in support of Windsor’s argument for a more strategic use of political clout, but it could equally apply to urban members, indeed to all MPs. Once again, it raises the issue of predictable and stable government versus the question of representation.

Tony Windsor held New England as an independent member for 12 years, winning elections in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010. Prior to that, he represented Tamworth in the NSW Legislative Assembly as an independent, winning elections in 1991, 1995 and 1999.

There may be many good reasons for the electors of New England to turf out Barnaby Joyce and reinstate Tony Windsor, but none of those reasons has any foundation in the early history of the Federation.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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