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Preferential Voting In Federal Elections Is One Hundred Years Old Today

Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Corangamite by-election, the first time preferential voting was used in the House of Representatives.

Coincidentally, yesterday was the 99th anniversary of the eighth federal election in 1919, and the first to use preferential voting in place of first-past-the-post.

As with many by-elections, including the seven that have been held in 2018, the by-election following the declaration of peace is an interesting study of politics and personality. The three main candidates went on to experience varied political careers.

Based around Colac, Camperdown, Ararat and Warrnambool, the Victorian electorate of Corangamite had been mostly conservative since 1901. The by-election was occasioned by the death of its inaugural member, Chester Manifold (shown below), who twice held the seat, from 1901-03 as a Protectionist and from 1913-18 as a Liberal and Nationalist.

Manifold
Chester Manifold

Having retired due to ill health in 1903, Manifold was persuaded to run again in 1913. He defeated the 36-year-old Labor incumbent, future prime minister James Scullin (shown below), who had held the seat since 1910. As the Great War drew to a close, Manifold died at sea from pneumonia on October 30, 1918. The Commonwealth Electoral Act was before the Parliament at the time, with preferential voting a major reform.

Scullin
James Scullin

The by-election was held a month after the Armistice. Five candidates nominated, including Scullin, who contested for the ALP again, topping the primary vote with 42.5% (10,630 votes). Scullin’s political ambitions were long-held. He contested his first election in Ballaarat in 1906, against the sitting member and prime minister Alfred Deakin.

The Nationalist candidate for the by-election was 32-year-old George Knox. A Gallipoli veteran, he polled 22.9% (5,737 votes).

However, Knox was outpolled by 49-year-old William Gibson (shown below), the Victorian Farmers Union candidate, who polled 26.4% (6,604 votes). Whilst Scullin was well ahead, he could not win, provided the Nationalists and VFU exchanged preferences. From the non-Labor perspective, the need for preferential voting to apply a tourniquet to the bleeding of the anti-Labor vote was never more clearly illustrated.

Gibson
William Gibson

In addition to Gibson, Knox and Scullin, two independent Nationalist candidates nominated. It is reasonable to suspect that their aim was tactical, to funnel votes to Knox. The tactic had mixed success. We can never know, but Knox may have won if they had not run.

Thomas Leaper, a Nationalist representing the Returned Services, polled 3.6% (895 votes). Eliminated first, 52.8% of his preferences went to Knox and 23.5% to Gibson. Gibson remained ahead but the gap had narrowed. Scullin remained in first place, having scored just 11.4% (102 votes) of Leaper’s preferences.

The other independent Nationalist, Francis Coldham, polled 4.7% (1,174) of the primary vote. 50% of Coldham’s preferences went directly to Knox, whilst Gibson garnered 47%. Scullin scored just 35 of Coldham’s preferences but remained in the lead with 43.0%.

The majority of Leaper’s and Coldham’s preferences had gone to Knox, but the leakage of preferences to the VFU maintained Gibson in second place. Gibson now had 29.6% of the vote to Scullin’s 43.0%. Knox had 27.4% and 6,855 preferences to distribute.

Knox’s preferences flowed 97.4% (6,678 votes) to Gibson, with Scullin getting just 2.6% (177 votes). From second place on the primaries, 3,349 votes behind Scullin, Gibson leap-frogged into the lead with the final distribution of preferences. With a lead of 3,152 votes and 56.3% of the two-party vote, he became the first federal member elected under preferential voting.

The full distribution of preferences in Corangamite. Source: Psephos.

Corangamite

Gibson is generally regarded as the first Country Party member of the House, even though the party had not yet officially formed. Within four years, the Country Party would win the balance of power in the House and take down prime minister Billy Hughes in February 1923.

Gibson went on to become Postmaster-General and Minister for Works and Railways in the Bruce government (1923-29). He held Corangamite until defeated in 1929, but returned for one more term in 1931. In 1934, he ran for the Senate and spent 12 years in the upper house before retiring in 1947, aged 78. He died in 1955, aged 86.

George Knox (shown below) went on to represent Upper Yarra and Scoresby in the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1927 until his death at the age of 74 in 1960. He was knighted and was Speaker for five years in the 1940s. A resident and local government councillor in the eastern Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully, the municipality of Knox is named after him. I happen to be in Knox as I write this.

Knox
Sir George Knox

In 1922, four years after the Corangamite by-election, Scullin returned to the House of Representatives, winning the Yarra by-election that followed the death of ALP leader Frank Tudor.

Scullin would become prime minister for two chaotic and tumultuous years in 1929. His was a tragic prime ministership, culminating in a three-way split in the ALP that led to his defeat in 1931 at the hands of six defectors led by Joseph Lyons, and five NSW Lang Labor members informally led by Jack Beasley. Catastrophically defeated at the 1931 election, Scullin contested one more election as ALP leader in 1934. He remained in parliament until 1949, often mentoring new members. He died in 1953.

With Australia’s federation still in its infancy, the lives of Gibson, Knox and Scullin intersected in Corangamite in 1918. The party system was still fluid and evolving. Could these men have realised that the voting system they were pioneering at the federal level would ensure the dominance of their respective political parties for another century?

Acknowledgement: The photographs on this page were taken from Psephos.