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A Day Without A Prime Minister

Fifty-five years ago today, December 18, 1967, Australia experienced a singular event. For the only time since Federation in 1901, a whole day passed without a prime minister in office.

The day before, December 17, prime minister Harold Holt disappeared in the sea off Cheviot Beach, in Portsea, Victoria. On December 18, a search for his body was continuing, but little hope was held for its recovery. It was not until December 19 that Holt’s successor, John McEwen, was sworn in as prime minister.

John McEwen

Dec 18, 1967: Country Party leader John McEwen, ahead of his appointment as prime minister the next day.

Constitutional convention requires that there must always be a prime minister to advise the Governor-General. Two previous prime ministerial deaths in office were followed by same day or next day appointments of a new prime minister.

Prime ministerial resignations following retirement, party leadership challenges or electoral defeat always take place at the precise moment the new prime minister is sworn in. In this way, continuity prevails.

In 1967, Christmas was only a week away. Parliament had adjourned for the year. Politicians had left Canberra. Holt disappeared on a Sunday. Speedy appointment of a new PM was difficult.

An important complication arose because there was no such office as Deputy Prime Minister at that time. Who was the deputy to the prime minister? The deputy leader of the Liberal Party? The leader of the junior coalition party?

Ultimately, the decision about who to appoint had to be made by the Governor-General. Lord Casey, formerly Richard Casey, was a former long-time Liberal Party politician. He served as Treasurer for three and a half years under Lyons in the 1930s. In 1940, he was Minister to the United States, effectively ambassador. In 1944, he was appointed Governor of Bengal. In 1949, he returned to the Commonwealth Parliament as the Liberal member for La Trobe, a new seat in Melbourne’s outer east. Until 1960, he held portfolios in the Menzies government, including ten years as Minister for External Affairs, now called Foreign Affairs. In 1965, Menzies appointed him Governor-General.

Casey’s decision on Holt’s successor was informed by his understanding of politics, the Liberal Party and the coalition relationship. He had served alongside all the key players in the Liberal-Country Party coalition government since 1949.

Two days after Holt’s disappearance, on December 19, the Country Party leader, John McEwen, was sworn in as Australia’s 18th prime minister.


Dec 19, 1967: John McEwen is sworn in as PM by G-G Lord Casey.

McEwen’s appointment by Casey was in accordance with the precedent established in 1939, following the death of PM Joseph Lyons on April 7. The Country Party leader, Earle Page, was appointed prime minister the same day. As the leader of the junior coalition partner, he was deemed appropriate as a temporary stand-in.

Page held office over 20 days, from April 7 until April 26, 1939. He relinquished office to the newly-elected leader of the United Australia Party, Robert Menzies.

When Labor prime minister John Curtin died in office in 1945, the choice of replacement was much easier. The deputy leader of the ALP, Frank Forde, was sworn in the next day. He served as PM over 8 days from July 6 until July 13, when he relinquished the prime ministership to the new ALP leader, Ben Chifley.

McEwen held office over 23 days as prime minister from December 19, 1967 until January 10, 1968, when he relinquished the post to the new Liberal Party leader, Senator John Gorton. Gorton subsequently won the by-election for Holt’s Melbourne electorate of Higgins and moved to the lower house. He is the only senator to have ever served as prime minister.

In 1968, the position of Deputy Prime Minister was officially created. John McEwen was the first person to hold the title, even though it had been used unofficially for many years.

Upon taking office in 1967, McEwen paid tribute to Holt. The official statement is shown below:

McEwen statement on Holt

A Century Apart, The Kooyong Elections Of 1922 And 2022

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

Sir Robert Best, Member for Kooyong (1910-1922)

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

Sir John Latham, Member for Kooyong 1922-1934

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.


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 Kooyong Results



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.


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.

PM – 20th Anniversary Program

The ABC radio program PM has been a staple program since I was a schoolboy.

I think I began listening to it in 1972, possibly in 1971. Its coverage of the massacre at the Munich Olympics sticks in my memory. Those were the days when news and current affairs was what we now call “appointment” broadcasting. The programs that accompanied breakfast, lunch and dinner were the times you found out what was happening in the world. No internet, no 24-hour television, no mobile phones, no social media.

Throughout my life, PM has been ever-present, one of the essential programs I turned to, not just in times of momentous events, but on a daily basis. As a university student during the Whitlam and Fraser years, and as a teacher through four separate decades, it was vital, not just personally, but professionally. For me, teaching English, Politics and History always required an up-to-date grasp of current events. Everything is relevant.

For many years, I listened to it in the car. The years began with Huw Evans as host, and then Paul Murphy, with Monica Attard and Ellen Fanning preceding the arrival of Mark Colvin. I loved it when a 5pm edition began on Radio National, with the local radio version continuing after the 6pm news. The duplication enabled me to leave work at different times and still listen to the whole program, albeit out of order.

Like many, I appreciated the authority and knowledge of Colvin. He made the program his. It is no reflection on him or any of the other hosts, but Evans will always be the voice of PM for me. Perhaps it was the November 11, 1975 live broadcast that did it. [Read more…]

John Fahey, Former NSW Premier and Howard Finance Minister, Dies, 75

John Fahey, the former Liberal Premier of NSW, and Finance Minister in the Howard government, has died, aged 75.

FaheyFahey was first elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1984 as the member for Camden. He transferred to Southern Highlands in 1988 and was a minister in the Greiner government following the 1988 election.

He became Premier on June 24, 1992, following the forced resignation of Nick Greiner, in the aftermath of an investigation by the Independent Commission Against Coruption.

As premier, Fahey is best remembered for the role he played in securing the 2000 Sydney Olympics for NSW.

Fahey’s Liberal-Nationals coalition was defeated in the 1995 election and Bob Carr became Labor premier. Fahey transferred to the federal division of Macarthur at the 1996 federal election and became Minister for Finance in the Howard government, a position he held until he retired at the 2001 election.

His career after politics is notable for his role as president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He also served as Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University. [Read more…]