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.