He’d been the member for Kooyong for 12 years and was facing his fifth general election contest, but lost his seat, partly because of his very unpopular leader.
No, not Josh Frydenberg, but his predecessor, Sir Robert Best, who lost Kooyong one hundred years ago today, December 16, 2022.
Best and Frydenberg are the only two incumbent members for Kooyong to have been defeated in 121 years.
Both men were well regarded in their political circles. Both had served for 12 years. Both suffered from an unpopular leader. Both lost support to an insurgent campaigner. Both were defeated on Labor preferences.
Best, a Nationalist, was replaced by John Latham, later Sir John, a dissident Nationalist. Frydenberg, a Liberal, was replaced by Monique Ryan, an independent.
The historical symmetry is delicious. The canard that “history repeats” has been replaced with the more appropriate “history rhymes”. One hundred years apart, the 1922 and 2022 elections in Kooyong provide some interesting parallels and contrasts.
SIR ROBERT BEST
The sitting member for Kooyong in 1922 was Sir Robert Best. A senator from 1901 until his defeat in 1910, he successfully contested the by-election for Kooyong on August 24, 1910, following the ill-health retirement of the previous member, William Knox.
A solicitor, Best had served in the Victorian Parliament as the member for Fitzroy from 1889, becoming known for tariff reforms and Land Acts. A strong supporter of Federation, he wasn’t a firebrand but was regarded as a solid, reliable, details man. He was knighted in 1908.
Best won re-election to Kooyong at the federal elections of 1913, 1914, 1917 and 1919. In 1913 and 1914, he defeated Vida Goldstein. In 1917, he was elected unopposed.
From 1910 until 1922, the primary vote for the non-Labor candidates (Commonwealth Liberals and then Nationalists) never fell below 50% in Kooyong, and was generally in the high 50s or low 60s. At Best’s last successful election in 1919, he polled 62.5% of the primary vote. Preferential voting had been introduced in 1918 but Best easily outpolled his two opponents and no preferences were distributed.
(SIR) JOHN LATHAM
Latham was a well-known and successful barrister in Melbourne. After the war, he accompanied prime minister William Morris (Billy) Hughes to the Versailles Peace Conference.
Hughes, a life-long member of the Labor Party, had served as a minister in all the Labor governments since Federation. Becoming leader in 1915, he split with the ALP, over conscription, in 1916. He joined with the Liberals to form the Nationalist Party and became its leader. He is the only person to have served as a Labor and an anti-Labor prime minister.
Latham returned from the Peace Conference a determined opponent of Hughes. In the words of the late Stuart Macintyre, he “was critical of [Hughes’] excesses and affronted by his manner”. Latham joined a group known as the Liberal Union, a loose assortment of groups with varying names that worked to support Liberal and Nationalist candidates. Critics of Hughes could find refuge in the Liberal Union.
Leading up to the 1922 election, Latham crossed paths with Robert Menzies and H.V. Evatt in the famous Engineers case in the High Court. Offered a judge’s position on the Victorian Supreme Court, he declined. He was fated to become the member for Kooyong instead.
THE 1922 ELECTION IN KOOYONG
There were only three candidates in Kooyong in 1922. Best styled himself as an “independent Nationalist”, and Latham ran as a Liberal. The ALP nominated Jean Daley, a 41-year-old unionist and women’s activist. She was the ALP’s first official female candidate in Victoria.
Latham’s campaign offered a simple proposition: “Get rid of Hughes.” Years ago, I saw photographs of anti-Hughes slogans at various locations around Kooyong. Sadly, I can’t locate them now.
Best topped the poll with 13,459 votes (47.4%, a drop of 15.1%). Latham came in second with 9,591 votes (33.8%), with Daley garnering 5,341 (18.8%). Interestingly, the ALP had also polled 18.8% at the previous election in 1919. Latham’s vote clearly transferred from Best.
The distribution of Daley’s preferences was decisive. Latham picked up 4,769 votes to just 572 for Best. The preference flow was 89.3% to Latham and just 10.7% to Best.
Latham won the seat by 329 votes (14,360 to 14,031), a two-party majority of 50.6%. It was reported that Best did not attend the declaration of the poll.
Aside from Latham, there were four other Liberal Union members elected around the country. It would be inaccurate to compare them to the Teal independents, but they are of interest because they were predominantly Nationalists who disagreed with Hughes’ leadership.
The full results from Kooyong are shown below. Credit: Psephos
1922 AND 2022 – SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
The similarity with 2022 is startling. Over two elections (2019 and 2022), the Liberal primary vote fell from 58.6% to 42.6%, a decline of 16%. In 1922, Best’s vote fell by a similar margin of 15.1% since 1919.
In both elections, ALP preferences decided the winner. In 2022, there were 7 micro-party and what I call “shrapnel” candidates, who were all progressively eliminated without appreciably altering the Frydenberg or Ryan percentages. The elimination of the Greens put Ryan ahead by about 1000 votes, but ALP preferences were needed to get her to an absolute majority.
As the Australian Election Study shows, Labor and Greens voters voted strategically in 2022, firstly to pump up Ryan’s primary vote and put her into second place, and then Labor preferences put Ryan over the top. Even if 100% of all other preferences had gone to Frydenberg, he wouldn’t have been able to win.
In 1922, however, with just three candidates, it was easy for the ALP to direct preferences to Latham, in order to defeat the incumbent member, a kind of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” move.
By 1925, following the removal of Hughes as Nationalist leader, a move caused by the Country Party demanding Hughes’ head in return for a coalition agreement, Latham had returned to the Nationalist Party, serving as Attorney-General in the Bruce-Page government from 1925 until 1929. The Nationalists and their successors, the United Australia Party, did not again see their primary vote fall below 50% in Kooyong until the 1943 Labor landslide.
In 2022, however, it can be seen that the independent member for Kooyong’s next election will depend on holding dissident Liberal voters (about 15%) with strategic Labor voters (about 10%) and strategic Greens voters (about 15%).
The dismal primary vote performance of the Teal candidates in Kew and Hawthorn – seats wholly contained within the boundaries of Kooyong – at last month’s state election – Hawthorn 21.1%, Kew 20.0% – shows that this won’t be easy. A direct primary vote loss of ALP or Greens voters, let alone a loss of preferences, will make re-election near impossible, especially if the Liberal primary vote increases.
Recent history has shown that independents and other third forces can consolidate and grow their base after an initial win – witness Indi, Melbourne, Clark, Mayo and Warringah, for example. We shall see if that is possible in Kooyong at the next election. Will the conjunction of a handful of issues – climate change, integrity in politics, women in politics – be enough next time? The search for relevance and importance is underway now.
Both Latham in 1922 and Ryan in 2022 benefited from an unpopular incumbent prime minister. That is unlikely to be replicated in the same form in 2024 or 2025. Latham was assisted in 1922 by newspaper support from The Argus. Ryan overcame considerable media hostility in 2022 but now confronts an ongoing campaign. Grassroots and community support will be put to the test next time.
We will surely not have to wait another hundred years for an interesting contest in Kooyong.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BEST, LATHAM AND HUGHES?
Robert Best returned to the law and abandoned politics. He died in 1946, aged 89.
William Morris Hughes lost his majority in the 1922 election. It was the second general election to use preferential voting in the House and the nascent Country Party won the balance of power, winning 14 seats. The Nationalists won 26 (-11) , whilst Labor held 29 (+3).
The Country Party leader, Earle Page, insisted that Hughes be replaced as leader in return for a coalition arrangement with the Nationalists. Latham provided assistance to Page in the negotiations. The coalition agreement exists to this day. Stanley Melbourne Bruce became the new prime minister and went on to win the 1925 and 1928 elections, before losing in 1929.
Hughes, originally the member for West Sydney, served most of his prime ministership as the member for Bendigo. In 1922, he returned to NSW as the member for North Sydney, a seat he held until 1949 before moving to the new seat of Bradfield. He died in 1952, aged 90, still in parliament and the last serving member from the first parliament elected in 1901. His term of 51 years as a member of the House of Representatives is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
Sir John Latham became the leader of the Nationalist Party in 1929. As Opposition Leader, he confronted the Scullin Labor government during the Depression. When Labor’s Joe Lyons split the ALP for a second time, he took a small group of supporters with him. They joined with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party and Latham lost his leadership to Lyons.
Latham served in the first Lyons government (1932-1934) as Minister for Industry, Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General.
At the 1934 election, Latham relinquished Kooyong to the 39-year old Robert Menzies. Fresh from a 6-year career in the Victorian parliament that culminated in him serving the final two years as the first Deputy Premier of Victoria, Menzies turned 40 four days after the 1934 election.
In 1935, the Lyons government appointed Latham Chief Justice of the High Court, a position he held until 1952.
In his final year as Chief Justice, Latham was the sole dissenting vote in the successful 6-1 challenge to the validity of the Communist Party Dissolution Act. He died in 1964, aged 86.