A bee’s donger

This time yesterday, Liberal member Fran Bailey held on to a 32-vote lead in McEwen which, though rapidly diminishing, was calculated by Antony Green to be 77 per cent likely to hold after the few remaining votes were counted. Those votes are now in: the last few absent votes broke 100-93 in favour of Labor’s Rob Mitchell, postals went 37-21 his way, pre-polls favoured him to the tune of 33-23, and further rechecking of booth votes cost Bailey 14 and Mitchell eight. All of which leaves Mitchell seven votes ahead. This is apparently the final result, pending the final recount, which could certainly turn up enough anomalies to overturn a lead as small as this. Adam Carr further argues that with a margin of fewer than 20 votes, “the Liberal Party’s lawyers will be able to scrape up some pretext or another for a court challenge”. He also states: “Unfortunately for Labor, most of the precedents are that the incumbent government loses the subsequent by-election (Nunawading, Mundingburra, Greensborough).”

Mundingburra of course was the Queensland by-election in February 1996 that cost the Goss government the one-seat majority it retained after the 1995 election. The other two are from Carr’s home patch of Victoria. There are probably about five people in the country who can tell you about the 1985 by-election for the state upper house province of Nunawading, and I am not of their number. UPDATE: Scratch that – the result cost the Cain government its short-lived control of the upper house, so probably quite a few people know about it, including me from now on. What’s more, it followed an initial tied result and a win for Labor decided by a draw from a hat. The Greensborough by-election refers not to the one Sherryl Garbutt won in 1989, but rather to the one Poll Bludger commenter Chris Curtis ran in as DLP candidate in 1977, which produced a massive swing to the then Labor opposition. ANOTHER UPDATE: A correction in comments from Brian McKinlay (of McKinlay case fame), who says Carr was in fact referring to yet another by-election for Greensborough which took place in 1973, which saw a Liberal win overturned by the court before being re-confirmed by the electorate. One might respond that the 1996 Lindsay by-election demonstrates that voters do not take kindly to initiators of legal challenges, but perhaps the 5.0 per cent Liberal swing on that occasion had more to do with Labor’s generally poor performance at re-matches than is generally realised.

Anyway, let’s assume now for the sake of argument that this result stands. We now have a new modern standard for close federal electorate results to beat Liberal candidate Ian Viner’s 12-vote win in Stirling in 1974. The historians among you are invited to relate other famous close shaves in comments. We also have Labor on 84 seats and the Coalition on 64, with two independents. This is pleasing from a personal perspective as it’s exactly what I predicted early in the campaign for New Matilda, although I did underestimate Queensland’s contribution to the Labor total. Unfortunately, the day before the election I upped the ante to 87 in a prediction for Crikey, which looked very good on election night but became progressively less good as counting proceeded.

This prediction was highlighted today in The Australian, which has promoted me from confuser of fact with opinion and baser of opinion on ignorance and prejudice to the slightly more elevated title of “pundit”. I suspected at first that The Australian compiled this list as a subtle dig at an online commentariat that had leaned a little too heavily to Labor in its predictions, but that doesn’t explain the inclusion of Malcolm Mackerras. In any case, Brad Norington bails me out in the accompanying article by trying on the line that Labor owes its win to “fewer than 12,000 people across nine electorates”. Those of you marvelling over the seven-vote margin in McEwen are invited to consider an election in which the Coalition held on to power after retaining each of Bass, Bennelong, Braddon, Corangamite, Deakin, Flynn, Hasluck, Robertson and Solomon by one solitary vote. On this basis, I hereby declare that my prediction of 87 seats was only out by 595 votes out of 12,350,549. It would in fact be far more accurate to say it was 0.2 per cent out, which isn’t so bad either I suppose.

UPDATE: Adam Carr on historical close results:

In terms of numbers of votes, the closest result in a House of Representatives contest was 1 vote (13,569 to 13,568), when Edwin Kirby (Nationalist) defeated Charles McGrath (ALP) in Ballarat (Vic) in 1919. The result was declared void in 1920. In 1903 Robert Blackwood (FT) defeated John Chanter (Prot) in Riverina (NSW) by 5 votes (4,341 to 4,336). This result was also declared void. The closest result allowed to stand was 7 votes (13,162 to 13,155), when John Lynch (ALP), defeated Hon Alfred Conroy (Lib) in Werriwa (NSW) in 1914. In terms of percentages of the vote, the closest result was Kirby’s voided win in Ballarat in 1919: he polled 50.002% of the vote. The closest result allowed to stand was that in the Griffith (Qld) by-election of 1939, when William Conelan (ALP) defeated Peter McCowan (UAP), after preferences, with 50.007% of the vote. The closest winning margin in recent times has been 50.011%, polled by Ian Viner (Liberal) in Stirling (WA) in 1974 and by Christine Gallus (Liberal) in Hawker (SA) in 1990.

Mitchell has 50.003%, so his percentage is lower than both Conelan’s in 1939, Viner’s in 1974 and Gallus’s in 1990.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

664 comments on “A bee’s donger”

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  1. Well done William,so has Labor got the mandate it claims if 12,000 votes decide the result,what is the TPP if the results remain as expected?

  2. Nunawading 1985 was if memory serves me for I was only 9 but happened after either a tie result or Peter Batchelor printed fake how-to-vote cards from the Anti Nuke party preferences the ALP.

  3. From Graham Hudson’s chapter in Mark Considine and Brian Costar’s (eds) Trials in Power: “Control of the Legislative Council was denied to the government as the Nunawading by-election was lost amid allegations of an ALP inspired how-to-vote card scandal”. So it was in fact a greatly momentous event, contrary to the impression initially given in my post.

  4. Seven Votes!
    I almost feel sorry for Fran Bailey.
    spare a thought for my buddy Richard Di Natale who is in a similar positon in that the waiting goes on and on.
    And that was without a dirty campaign.
    a Pox on evangelical christian political parties – you know who you are.

  5. William

    Regarding the Nunawading by-election in 1985. I knew the Returning Officer and was in contact with him at the time the drama was unfolding. In the end it was a dead heat and a draw was done from a ballot box (not sure what it was they actually drew out) to settle the issue. The Labor party came up trumps.

    That wafer thin win gave Labor the smallest possible majority in the upper house, I think the first time they had ever had one, and enabled the Cain Labor government to get its Work Care legislation through the parliament.

    A short time later, the Court of Disputed Returns (or whatever it is known as in the State of Victoria) overturned the result and the re-run was very comfortably won by the Liberals.

  6. I think you will find that Nunawading was a tied vote and a lucky dip took place. Labor was awarded the seat and was given control of the Upper House for a short time. During that time Labor passed it’s Work Cover Legislation. Irregularities, involving Batchelor, did occur and subsequently the election for that seat had to be conducted again. The Libs won it back and Labor lost the slimm majority in the Upper House. That was the first time, I believe, that Labor had control of the Upper House in Victoria.

  7. “KEVIN Rudd and Labor owe their election victory a fortnight ago to just 0.1 per cent of the national vote after fewer than 12,000 people across nine electorates dumped the Coalition.”

    That would have to be the dickhead comment of the election.

    12,000 people dump the coaliton labors vote goes up by 0.1% and Howard is reelcted with an increased majority of one, ie 88 seats.

    Conversley distribute the votes evenly across the electorates as others have pointed out and labor wins all 150 seats with a 2PP of 52.8% in every seat.

    But Hayden also lost the 1908 election by only 3,000 votes on the same reasoning, we probably would still have got Hawkie in 87 and Keating in 93 and Howard in 96 and Kevin in 07.

    However as Adam and others pointed out the funding given to members hugely favoured them with safe labor seats recording big swings of around 8% plus and it was a terrific victory to achieve a 24 seat gain given this and the government $600 million dollar advertising campaign.

    If Rudd winds back the members rorts it will even out te gorunds for members and challengers next time.

    Given the disparity of swings across seats it was a lottery to pick the final result which could have been between 83 to 92 seats.

    But congratulations William on your pick of 84.

  8. I must corect you about the Greensborough by-election.
    You are quite wrong !! It was not the by-election of 1977 that led to a disputed return ,but the election of 1973.

    In 1967,the newly created seat of Greensborough in Melbourne’s north-east,was won by a Liberal, Monty Vale,who lost it in 1970 to Labor’s Bob Fell.
    Fell and Vale both contested the seat again in 1973,and Fell lost to Vale by just 5 votes,after a series of recounts.
    Vale became member ,but Fell immediately challenged over the matter of some disputed ballot papers.

    This challenge was heard by a Victorian Judge acting as a “Court of Disputed Returns “who found in Fell’s favour and order a fresh election,which ironically Fell lost by a margin of nearly a thousand votes
    . This happened during the time of the Hamer Liberal Government, so there was no anti-government swing involved.but the Liberals may have profited because of an interest rate rise which they blamed on Whitlam,then in power in Canberra.

    .The new election was not called a by-election but a “re-election” by the VEC. I know because I was on Fell’s campaign committee at that time ..

    In 1976 Vale won again against an outstanding Labor candidate named McKinlay(ME!!),but died a year later.and in the by-election the new Labor candidate Pauline Toner won the seat,and later in the 1980’ies when Cain came to power. she became the first Labor woman to hold cabinet rank in Victoria,there was another by-election in 1989 when Toner died in office,and the seat was won by Garbutt.who held cabinet rabk under Bracks,

    With 3 by-elections between 1973-1989 Greensborough must hold some sort of record, The seat later was later chaged and made into the seats of Eltham and Bundoora. Of it’s four members ,two died in office…a 50% death rate,…so perhaps I did well to lose in 1976!

  9. Shackles says

    Regarding seats won. Of the last 8 close seats the Coalition had the advantage of the donkey vote in all except Solomon and Flynn. The donkey vote is “worth” an average of about .5% and reversing the position on the ballot paper means a 1% turnaround – changing result in all seats except McEwen. Labor winning 5 more seats and losing 2. Just as well this didn’t affect the overall result. Lets hope there is some will by Labor and the Senate to fix some of the problems which affect the fairness of election process.

  10. William, I was going to say that I was actually refering to the Vale-Fell by-election of 1973, but I see that Brian has already said that. I was of course wrong to say that the incumbent government lost that by-election, since the Libs were in office. Perhaps it would be more accurate just to say that Labor usually loses these by-elections, whether we’re in government or not.

  11. Gary, the (alleged) irregularities in Nunwading took place during the by-election, not the original election. The original election was voided because the returning officer acted incorrectly in drawing a name out of a hat. The Act requires (or did then, anyway) that in the event of a tie the returning officer must cast a vote, which she didn’t do.

  12. Pedant (9) You have a good memory. I was wondering if anyone would bring that up. The official Returning Officer was indeed a woman. She was the wife of my friend and colleague to whom I referred. He was the one really running the show and it became something of an embarrassment to both of them when the spotlight of the whole country went onto that seat. He said to me after it was all over that he would never do that sort of thing again. And he never did.

  13. Yes, I’ve amended my statement of Lindsay to suggest that there might be an unequivocal anti-Labor bias in what I have called “re-matches”. A big Poll Bludger welcome to Brian McKinlay, who gained constitutional immortality in 1975 courtesy of the High Court’s momentous ruling in the “McKinlay case”.

  14. William,
    That statement by Hudson is doubtless a direct quote, but it’s wrong as it conflates two separate issues.
    The result in Nunawading at the general election was a tie. The provision at the time was that the returning officer was obliged to break the deadlock by casting a vote (iirc, the returning officer was not permitted to vote in the ordinary poll). The woman with that responsibility didn’t want to express a preference which might then be construed as a bias that might have allowed a perception that her conduct of the election was tainted; so she drew the winner’s name (Labor candidate Bob Ives, who later had at least one term in another Legislative Council constituency) from a hat.
    Inevitably, this result was over-turned by the Court of Disputed Returns – not because the “raffle” was invalid, but due to the various irregularities (they always exist, but since margins are typically greater than 1 or 7 or 12, then Courts of Disputed Returns only order a fresh election if it is satisfied that the number of irregularities exceed the winning margin).
    At the resulting by-election, with control of the Upper House at stake, both major parties threw everything at it. In fact the Liberal candidate won decisively – certainly in excess of 1,000 votes. The occasion was marred by the controversy over the htv scandal. I’d wager that there are fewer than 20 people could describe the details of what has passed into folklore as the Nunawading by-election scandal. There’s just a vague smell, which the mere mention of that phrase arouses.
    Essentially, it was this. The Nuclear Disarmament Party, then the popular more leftish alternative to Labor ran a candidate (tragics will remember Peter Garrett as an NDP contender for the Senate in 1984, narrowly missing a quota). NDP htvs for the Nunawading by-election indicated a 1 in the box of their candidate, but no allocated preferences. Labor sources concerned about the impact of this – likely informal votes from people who might otherwise be expected to preference Labor – produced a htv purporting to be from the NDP with a full preference allocation, Labor of course at “2”. This is the so-called bogus htv card, which was widely distributed on polling day; but as the result was a decisive Liberal victory, the “bogus htv card was irrelevant to the outcome. If Labor had won, there would certainly have been a challenge, and either the result would have been reversed or a third election would have been scheduled. There is some dispute over who was responsible, but the person mentioned earlier in the thread certainly copped the rap for it.

  15. Does anyone know the URL of the PollBludger seat predictions that were taken in October. From memory 84 seats was close to the median estimate. Perhaps at the next election we should track the Pollbludger consensus estimate as the best indicator.

  16. Adam @ 14, I don’t think you are correct in your recollection of the reasoning underlying the court’s ruling in Nunawading – my memory is that the Judge, John Erskine Starke, upheld the validity of the manner in which the returning officer had arrived at her casting vote, and indeed said words to the effect that it was a very Australian way to proceed. The main problem on which the challenge turned was the mishandling of certain absent votes by or on the instructions of the then Chief Electoral Officer for Victoria.

  17. OK, so I did tip 84-64-2. Does this mean I get a gold star? Honors in psephology? Or just bragging rights? (Don’t worry, I’ve already taken up on the bragging rights with my mates.)

  18. Jen @ 5,

    Don’t feel sorry for Frannie!

    Her seat has 104,509 enrolled voters. Indi, to the north, -the Mirabella ‘queendom’ – has only 90,871 enrolled. By rights, about 5,000 votes from the northern part of McEwen should be in the land of good Queen Sophie.

    I’d wager that, on the balance of probabilities, the votes at that end would be likely to be more Lib than Lab. Hence it is only the absence of a recent redistribution that has kept Frannie competitive.

    Of the 10 seats in ‘Provincial Victoria’, as it is referred to by local government, McEwen is the furthest above the average of 93,424 enrolled voters. Smallest is Murray – Stone’s seat – with 88,890 enrolled.

  19. Another close election result in Australia was in 1968 when Des Corcoran won the seat of Millicent in South Australia by 1 vote. The Court of Disputed returns ordered a re run and Corcoran won the bye election comfortably.
    Corcoran went on to become Premier of South Australia post Don Dunstan.

  20. Based on Poll Bludger predictions compiled in October the median estimate of ALP seats won was a shade over 86 – pretty good effort from a month out.

    … which just goes to prove the overall balance and insight of the bloggers here.

  21. Thanks Old Tom.
    having been a candidate in Indi and had the (dubious) pleasure of debating Mrs Mirrabella, both in persona and on local radio your analysis makes me feel even better.

  22. The most celebrated ‘close’ election is, of course, the 1961 federal election in which Sir James Killen only just won the seat of Moreton for the Liberals due to a handful of Communist Party preferences. With the narrow victory in Moreton, the decidedly anti-communist Menzies government was returned – by that one seat.

  23. 1961 must have been the year of close contests. It was also the year of the famous “Tied Test” against the West Indies in Brisbane.

  24. How the hell do you remember numbers and disputes going back to the sixties.?

    What do you do in between elections?

    Why aren’t you candidates???

  25. The consequences of Killens win were of course that Australia went to war in Vietnam– Killen won by 130 votes– the subsequent costs for Australias young men were enormous.

  26. And William-
    will you provide The List of The Banned, seeing as you were willing to publicly disbar them at the time?
    There are some where i’m not sure whether they passed on, or you killed them off.

  27. Adam, no doubt some blogger here were rather optimistic. Some were pessimitic (hiya LTEP) – overall they cancelled each other out to create a pretty good estimate.

  28. From my website (sorry about the lost tabbing):

    MORETON, Qld 57,022 enrolled, 54,269 (95.2%) voted
    Suburban Brisbane: Moorooka, Mt Gravatt, Salisbury, Sherwood
    1958 two-party majority: Liberal over ALP 10.3 e
    Christian Hagen QLP 3,882 07.4 (-02.7)
    Max Julius CPA 676 01.3 (-01.5)
    Jim Killen * Lib 22,667 43.3 (-07.6)
    John O’Donnell ALP 25,123 48.0 (+11.8)
    1,921 (03.5) informal 52,348

    2nd count: distribution of Julius’s 676 votes
    Hagen 193 (28.6) 4,075 07.8
    Killen * 93 (13.8) 22,760 43.5
    O’Donnell 390 (57.7) 25,513 48.7
    > 676 52,348

    3rd count: distribution of Hagen’s 4,075 votes
    KILLEN * 3,479 (85.4) 26,239 50.1
    O’Donnell 596 (14.6) 26,109 49.9
    > 4,075 52,348 00.1 10.2 to ALP
    Denis James Killen (born 1925): Elected 1955, 1958, 1961
    There are several myths about this famous contest. The first is that
    Menzies sent a message saying “Killen, you’re magnificent” (he
    didn’t). The second is that Killen, a fierce anti-Communist,
    received Communist preferences (he did not: he did benefit from the
    small drift of Julius’s preferences, but this was cancelled out by
    the bigger drift of QLP preferences to the ALP). The third is that
    the ALP would have won the election if it had won Moreton (it would
    not have: the state of the parties would then have been 61-all.
    There would probably have been a minority Menzies government
    followed by a fresh election).

  29. jen 46

    There are other things about the 60’s I remember well but I have to say the vast majority of that decade is hidden in a substance induced haze

  30. congratulations to william & others who predicted closely the seat result

    BUT a word of caution re my hobby horse…Pollsters

    The predictions were essentially based on FLAWED polls showing Labor at 2PP
    of 54 -46 or 55-45 that had been stable for 9 months including part campaign

    Had the polls been showing 52-48 Newspoll & Galaxy
    or the current 52.86-47.14
    would predictors have predicted the same seat margin ?

    PS/ William thanks for the info on todays McEwen vote count breakup
    it was extraordinary luck !!!!!!

    1/ as the net 16 postals and net 10 pre polls that Mitchell got today was
    TOTALLY CONTRARY TO the todate 2PP vote of under 48% he’d been getting
    2/ because he then got a the net 8 votes on a recount (the winning margin)

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