Last updated on December 14, 2023
Today, June 30, is the 102nd anniversary of the Darwin by-election, in Tasmania, in 1917. It was the 21st by-election since Federation in 1901.
Darwin was the electorate now known as Braddon. Located in north-western Tasmania, it included the towns of Devonport and Burnie.
The by-election is notable because it was caused by the unexpected death of Charles Howroyd, the shortest-serving member of the House of Representatives, the man who ended the career of Labor’s King O’Malley.
The by-election led to the return to parliament of W.G. Spence, a union leader and one of the founders of the ALP, now sitting on the other side of the political divide.
The by-election was held in a climate of political upheaval following the split in the Labor Party over conscription. It was a time of bitter political infighting and sectarian conflict.
There are no particularly significant historical effects arising from the by-election, but the interplay of individuals and electorates is fascinating in its own right.
Charles Howroyd – MP for Five Days
Charles Howroyd – photo from Psephos
The by-election was caused by the death of Charles Howroyd, a Nationalist (Liberal). Howroyd won Darwin at the May 5, 1917 federal election. He died five days later, on May 10, aged just 50. To this day, Howroyd remains the shortest-serving member of the House of Representatives.
Howroyd had been a state Labor member, holding North Launceston in 1906 and then moving to Bass in 1909. He was a founding member of the ALP, one of many who left the party over conscription in 1916-17.
The by-election caused by Howroyd’s death was held just seven weeks after the 1917 federal election.
The Hughes Landslide of 1917
The 1917 election was a victory for Billy Hughes and the Nationalist Party. The party had only just been formed after ALP members who split with the ALP, or were expelled from it, over the issue of conscription, joined with the Liberals. The former Labor prime minister was now the leader of his former opponents.
The ALP lost 20 seats and was reduced to 22 members in the 75-member House. The Nationalists held 53 seats, polling 54.22% (up 7.01%) of the vote. The ALP polled 43.94% (down 6.96%). It was the first landslide victory in the history of the new Commonwealth.
King O’Malley – Gospel Preacher and Labor Minister
King O’Malley – photo from Psephos
O’Malley was probably born in Kansas, in the United States. Later, he used to claim he’d been born in Canada, an Empire country. At other times, he claimed his parents were born in Britain. An eligibility challenge, under Section 44 of the Constitution, never took place.
Before moving to Tasmania, O’Malley held the South Australian House of Assembly seat of Encounter Bay for one term from 1896.
O’Malley became a Labor member for Tasmania-at-large in 1901. From 1903 until 1917, he was the member for Darwin. A flamboyant figure, former gospel preacher and temperance advocate, he faced embezzlement allegations prior to entering federal parliament.
He was Home Affairs minister in the second Fisher government between 1910 and 1913. He facilitated the choice of Canberra as the nation’s future capital and played a disputed role in the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank. He is also credited with persuading the ALP to drop the “u” from Labour.
O’Malley was heavily defeated in 1917, suffering a 14.9% swing against Labor. He polled just 41.2% of the vote, against Howroyd’s 58.8%.
The results in the 1917 election in Darwin. Source: Psephos.
O’Malley never returned to parliament. He died in 1953, probably at the age of 95, the last surviving member of the First Parliament, and the second-last surviving member of the Second Parliament.
William Guthrie Spence – Unionist, Labor Founder
William Guthrie Spence – photo from Psephos
Like O’Malley, Spence was a founding member of the ALP and a key activist in the formation of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).
Like O’Malley, Spence had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1901. As the member for Darling in NSW, based around Cobar, Dubbo and Gilgandra, he held one of Labor’s safest seats. It was held for 76 years by the ALP, until it was abolished in 1977.
Spence’s support for Hughes and conscription led to his expulsion from the ALP and the AWU. He was deposed as president of the union. He lost Darling after a 7.2% swing against him.
The results in the 1917 election in Darling. Source: Psephos.
Arthur Blakeley, the man who defeated Spence, held Darling until 1934. He became president of the AWU and deputy leader of the ALP in the 1920s. He was a minister in the Scullin Labor government.
After his defeat and Howroyd’s death, Spence moved to Tasmania to contest the Darwin by-election. Despite a 3% swing to the ALP, Spence won it easily with 55.8% of the vote.
The results in the 1917 by-election in Darwin. Source: Psephos.
In winning Darwin, Spence became the second of just six people to have represented two different states in the parliament. Billy Hughes had moved from his Labor electorate of West Sydney to the Victorian seat of Bendigo at the general election.
Spence did not contest Darwin at the next election in 1919. The seat was retained by George Bell for the Nationalist Party, with 54% of the vote. A future prime minister, Joseph Lyons, contested the seat for the ALP. Like Spence and Howroyd, Lyons would ultimately defect to his political opponents.
Bell lost Darwin to the Country Party in 1922, but regained it in 1925. He was Speaker during the 1930s, whilst Lyons, who entered federal politics in 1929, was prime minister. When Bell retired in 1943, he was replaced in Darwin by Enid Lyons, widow of Joseph Lyons. Darwin and Bourke are the only seats I am aware of that were each contested at various times by a husband and wife.
Spence moved to Melbourne and contested the electorate of Batman in 1919, but he had no hope against the ALP’s Frank Brennan, who won 57.1% of the vote to Spence’s 42.9%. Brennan had won Batman in 1911 and held it until 1931 when he was defeated in the Lyons landslide. He regained Batman again in 1934 and held it until 1949.
The AWU’s Melbourne headquarters is named in Spence’s honour.