The Gurgle Hole of History – Leaders who’ve lost their Seats at Elections

Western Australia’s Liberal Leader Zak Kirkup holds his seat of Dawesville by a margin of just 0.8%.

According to the Newspoll in this morning’s The Australian, the swing to Labor at the state election on 13 March could be more than ten times Kirkup’s margin in Dawesville. Kirkup is clearly in danger of losing his seat, even if you intone the usual caveats about margin of error and the perils of assuming uniform swing.

It raises the grim prospect for Kirkup that his name could soon be added to an unwanted list – that of government leaders and opposition leaders who have lost their seats at an election.

This list below is not guaranteed to be complete. It is merely a list of all the examples I can think of post World War One.

I’ve created two lists, one for Leaders of Government, a second for Leaders of the Opposition. The list is roughly in descending order of importance.

In Canada you could draw up a related list of Leaders who have won elections but lost their seat. Without delving back into the 19th century, I can’t think of a similar occurrence in Australia.

Correction – One leader in my list, Goff Letts, is an example of a Leader who won the election but lost their seat. However, unlike normal practice in Canada, Letts did not return to parliament and resume the leadership via a by-election.

Leaders of Government

John Howard (Liberal) Prime Minister 2007
John Howard served as Liberal MHR for Bennelong from 1974 until his defeat in 2007. He is Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister holding office from 1996 to 2007. He served as Treasurer in the Fraser government 1977-83, served as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party under Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock. Howard had an unsuccessful period as Liberal Opposition Leader 1985-1989, losing the 1987 election to Bob Hawke in no small part due to Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen forcing a split in the Federal Coalition as part of a mad scheme to become Prime Minister himself. Deposed as Leader by Andrew Peacock in 1989, the first ‘coup’ to use the corridors of new Parliament House as backdrop, Howard suggested a return to the leadership would require him to be “Lazarus with a triple by-pass”, hence the title of his autobiography, “Lazarus Rising”. After the Hewson years and the Downer months, Howard returned to the Liberal leadership in early 1995 and led the Coalition to victory over Paul Keating in 1996. Over his 33 years as MHR, successive redistributions shifted Bennelong westward out of Liberal Party heartland. By the 2007 election, Bennelong had become a marginal seat with the same margin as the swing needed for Labor to win office. The swing was uniform and Howard was defeated both as member of parliament and as Prime Minister.

Stanley Bruce (Nationalist) Prime Minister 1929
Born of a wealthy Melbourne family, Bruce studied at Cambridge and for the bar in London before returning to Australia to head his family’s import/export business. He enlisted with the British Army and served at Gallipoli where he was wounded twice and received the Military Cross. After discharge he returned to Australia in 1917 and was recruited into the new Nationalist Party and won the 1918 Flinders by-election after the Country Party candidate withdrew as part of a deal that led to the introduction of preferential voting. Bruce became Treasurer in 1921. After Billy Hughes lost his majority at the 1922 election, the Country Party agreed to form a Coalition government on the condition that Hughes was removed. Bruce replaced Hughes as Prime Minister in early 1923 and his government was re-elected in 1925 and 1928. In 1929 Bruce introduced a controversial bill that would have abolished the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. In an act of revenge, Hughes marshalled the numbers to defeat the bill, the government resigned and an early election was called at which the government and Bruce in his seat of Flinders were defeated. Bruce returned to parliament for one term 1931-34 before becoming High Commissioner in London 1933-45 in an era when the role involved more decisions without the chance to consult with Canberra. He would later serve as the First Chancellor of the Australian National University. (Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Bruce.)

William Holman (Nationalist) Premier of NSW 1920
Holman joined the newly formed Labor Electoral League in 1891 and went on to be one of the founders of the NSW Labor Party, moving the motion that established the pledge by which elected members agreed to abide by caucus decisions. Holman was elected to state parliament as member for the country seat of Grenfell in 1898 and later Cootamundra after 1904. While James McGowen was Labor’s leader through this period and later Labor’s first NSW Premier, Holman was Labor’s best propagandist, famously debating George Reid over two days in 1906 on the topic “The Principles of Socialism as Defined in the Objective of the Platform of the Labour Party”. Holman succeeded McGowen as Premier in 1913. The Labor Party and particularly the union movement had become disenchanted with the small reforms produced by parliamentarianism and disputes arose that presaged Holman’s later split with the Labor Party over conscription. Like Billy Hughes, Holman and defecting colleagues joined with the opposition to form a Nationalist government. His government was re-elected in 1917, but was defeated in unusual circumstances in 1920, as was Holman in Cootamundra. NSW switched to what we now call the Hare-Clark electoral system for the 1920 election, and in a field with Labor, Progressive and fellow Nationalist colleagues, Holman was defeated in Cootamundra, as his government was overall. The new electoral system also meant there was no by-election path back into Parliament. Holman helped the Nationalist Party in future campaigns, and served a term in the House of Representatives as member for Martin 1931-34. (Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Holman.)

Campbell Newman (LNP) Premier Queensland 2015
Campbell Newman was the son of two Federal Tasmanian representatives. His father Kevin won the famous Bass by-election in 1974 and held the seat until 1984, serving in several portfolios in the Fraser government. His mother Jocelyn served in the Senate 1986-2001 and held senior portfolios in the Howard government 1996-2001. Campbell Newman served 13 years in the military, achieving an honours degree in Civil Engineering and reaching the rank of major. After the army he completed in an MBA, worked as a consultant before being recruited by the Liberal Party and being elected Lord Mayor of Brisbane in 2004. His first victory was to lead a council with a Labor majority, but a second victory in 2008 was a landslide. In early 2011 Newman was recruited to be the new Leader of the Queensland LNP, despite the problem of not having a seat in Parliament. Newman was first elected at the 2012 Queensland election, sworn in as Premier before he was sworn in as Member for Ashgrove. Despite being elected at the greatest landslide in Queensland electoral history, three years later Newman lost his seat and led the LNP to defeat. The Palaszczuk government that replaced Newman remains in government today.

James Mitchell (Nationalist) Premier Western Australia 1933
Mitchell was a farmer and bank manager before being elected to the Western Australian Parliament in 1905. After turbulent years where he was in and out of cabinet, Mitchell became Premier for the first time in May 1919, presiding over a state under lockdown due to the ‘Spanish’ flu. His government was defeated by Labor under Phillip Collier in 1924. He returned to office after winning the 1930 election, but his government was smashed at the 1933 election, Mitchell losing his own seat. Labor resumed office under Phillip Collier, going on to govern the state for the next 14 years. On the same day as the government was defeated, Western Australia voted to secede from the Commonwealth, though nothing ever came of the referendum. In an odd move that reflected the pair’s personal friendship, Collier appointed Mitchell as Lieutenant Governor, Governor in all but name as the Labor government chose to save money by not paying for the upkeep of an expensive British governor. Mitchell was formally appointed Governor in 1948 and held the post until 1951. (Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Mitchell.)

Adam Giles (Country Liberal) Chief Minister Northern Territory 2016
When appointed Chief Minister in 2013, Adam Giles made history by becoming the first Indigenous Australian to serve as head of an Australian government. Giles was first elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 2008, winning the Alice Springs seat of Braitling. He was re-elected in 2012 and appointed a senior minister in the Mills government. Seven months later, Giles controversially replaced Mills as Chief Minister while Mills was overseas on a trade mission. Two years later Giles was deposed by his party but refused to resign, producing a stand-off within the poarty that left him in office. Internally divided, scandal prone and having lost its majority, the Country Liberals were reduced to just two seats on defeat 2016, Giles narrowly losing his own seat.

Goff Letts (Country Liberal) Majority Leader Northern Territory 1977
From Victoria and a veterinary by profession, Goff Letts moved to the Northern Territory in 1957. He helped form the Country Party in 1966, was elected to the old advisory Legislative Council in 1967, and helped form the merged Country Liberal Party. Letts led the CLP to the first election for the NT Legislative Assembly, his party winning 17 of the 19 seats against two Independents and no members for the opposition Labor Party. Letts served in the office of Majority Leader as powers were slowly devolved to the NT government ahead of self-government in 1978. However, Letts was never to become Chief Minister after losing his seat at the second Assembly election in 1977, new CLP Leader Paul Everingham left to deal for the first time with a Labor opposition.

Leaders of the Opposition

Peter Coleman (Liberal) Opposition Leader, NSW 1978
Coleman was an academic and journalist before winning election to the NSW Parliament as member for Fuller in 1968. The author of numerous books, he was also an editor of Quadrant and the Bulletin. Coleman was appointed to the ministry under Tom Lewis, also serving under his successor Eric Willis, and was generally viewed as one of the more competent minister in the declining years of the Coalition government. The Lewis government was defeated by Labor under Neville Wran in May 1976 and Willis stayed on as opposition leader. With Wran dominating state politics, and following a series of gaffs by Willis, Coleman replaced him as Leader in December 1977. But nothing could stop the political juggernaut that Neville Wran had become. Wran led Labor to a landslide victory at the October 1978 election, also winning a majority in the first ever election for the Legislative Council. Coleman was defeated in his seat of Fuller, and on conceding defeat, memorably described himself as having gone down the “gurgle hole of history”.

Bruce McDonald (Liberal) NSW 1981
McDonald had a background as an engineer, businessman and developer before his did something unthinkable at the time – he challenged a sitting north shore Liberal MP for pre-selection. And he challenged a very well respected MP, John Waddy DFC, a decorated World War Two RAAF pilot and minister in the Lewis government. McDonald won the pre-selection, then won Waddy’s seat at the 1976 election as Neville Wran led Labor to power. The so-called ‘dirt’ file of McDonald’s past business dealings, compiled by his Liberal opponents in the pre-selection, made its way into Labor’s hands and was freely used after McDonald became Liberal Leader just before the 1981 election. Leading a demoralised party caucus and an underfunded party organisation against an immensely popular Premier aided by new one-vote one-value electoral boundaries, McDonald’s pugnacious style failed to prevent a landslide Labor victory. McDonald suffered the indignity of losing his own seat of North Shore to Independent Mayor of North Sydney Ted Mack. In a narrow race for second on first preference votes, Labor’s scrutineers turned up for the check count to ensure as many Labor votes as possibly were disqualified, leaving Mack in second place and on track to defeat McDonald on Labor preferences.

McDonald’s defeat created the odd record that over three years the NSW Liberal Party lost the seats of its last five leaders. Labor had won Earlwood at a by-election on the retirement of former Premier Eric Willis in 1978. (The defeated Liberal candidate was future broadcaster Alan Jones.) At the 1978 election Labor won former Premier Tom Lewis’s seat of Wollondilly, and defeated Peter Coleman in Fuller (see above). As well as Ted Mack’s victory in North Shore at the 1981 election, the National Party won Dubbo, the seat of John Mason who led the Liberal Party for three years between Coleman and McDonald.

Percy Tucker (Labor) Queensland 1974
Tucker was elected to the Queensland Parliament in 1960 as member for Townsville North. He was elected Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in 1966, and succeeded Jack Houston as Leader in July 1974. On becoming Leader and facing an election in early 1975, Tucker promised he would give Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen a ‘hiding’. In Parliament in October 1974, Tucker dared Bjelke-Petersen to call an early election. The dare was taken up, and at the December 1974 state election, Labor was thrashed, reduced to a cricket team of 11 members. Tucker was defeated in his own. seat. Tucker later served as Mayor of Townsville.
(Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Tucker.)

Bob Cheek (Liberal) Tasmania 2002
Cheek was a Tasmanian journalist and sports business proprietor. He was elected to Parliament as a Member for Denison in 1996. In Opposition after the 1998 election, Cheek challenged Sue Napier for the Liberal Leadership in 1999 but lost 9-2. He challenged again two years later, and after an evenly divided ballot, Napier resigned and Cheek became Leader. Labor Premier Jim Bacon called a slightly early July 2002 election and the Liberal vote collapsed. In Denison, the party only attracted enough votes to elect one member. While Cheek had the higher first preference vote, evergreen fellow Liberal Michael Hodgman attracted more preferences and defeated Cheek in the race to win the one Liberal seat available.

Denis Burke (Country Liberal) Northern Territory 2005
After a 25-year career in the Australian Army, Burke left to enter politics, winning the seat of Brennan at the 1994 Northern Territory election. He entered Cabinet the following year and served in a series of senior portfolios before succeeding Shane Stone as Chief Minister in February 1999. At the 2001 Northern Territory election, he became the first Country Liberal leader to lose an election, Labor winning a clear victory under Clare Martin. He was replaced as CLP Leader by Terry Mills in 2003, but returned to the position in 2005 after Mills resigned stating he didn’t feel capable of leading the CLP into the election. Back in the post just four months before the election, Burke led the CLP to a landslide defeat, the coup de grace for Labor being defeat for Burke in his Palmerston seat of Brennan.

Les Norman (Liberal) Liberal Leader 1952
Les Norman’s story is a strange case emanating from a particularly chaotic period in Victorian politics. At the 1950 Victorian election, the Liberal and Country Party (as the Liberal Party was then called) won 27 seats under its leader, Premier Tom Hollway. Labor under John Cain Senior won 24 seats, and the Country Party under John McDonald finished third with 13 seats. McDonald formed a Country Party government, backed by Labor from the crossbench, on the basis that electoral reform would be introduced. Hollway also pushed for electoral reform and talked to Labor, but lost the support of his party and was replaced as Liberal and Opposition Leader by Les Norman. Norman remained as Opposition leader until July 1952. In that time Hollway and seven others left the Liberals and formed an Electoral Reform Party. Cain withdrew support for the McDonald government and became Opposition Leader as head of the largest party. What followed was a blockage of supply, a four day electoral reform government led by Hollway, and an early election at which the Labor Party achieved majority government for the first time in Victorian history. And Les Norman? He was defeated in his own seat by – Tom Hollway. Norman was succeeded as leader by Trevor Oldham, who six months later was killed in a plane crash. Out of all this, the little know Deputy to all three leaders, Henry Bolte, emerged as party leader. Two years later the Labor Party split, the Cain government was thrashed, and after several years of extraordinary politics, Henry Bolte began an unbroken 17 year run as Premier.

10 thoughts on “The Gurgle Hole of History – Leaders who’ve lost their Seats at Elections”

  1. Interesting that only one was a Labor member

    COMMENT: It may simply be coincidence. Though historically Labor Leaders tend to hold the party’s safest seats, which doesn’t always apply on the conservative side of politics. Labor has had plenty of wipeout elections through history.

  2. There aren’t many Labor examples although there has been some close calls. Labor’s John Curtain barely held on to his seat of Freemantle as Leader of the opposition against United Australia Party challenger Frederick Lee at the 1940 federal election.

    1. A long time later but another Labor leader to lose was Jack Duggan in Queensland in 1957, though in the turbulence of the split that year he didn’t serve as Premier or Leader of the Opposition at the election so misses the list on a technicality. The following year he returned to both the state parliament and leadership, this time as Leader of the Opposition.

  3. I guess this shows the additional difficulty leaders have in our political system. Leaders of parties need to maintain a balance of their attention across their state/country, while maintaining their much more specific relationship with the constiuants in their electorate.

  4. Thankyou for posting a link to this article in Twitter. Even had FB allowed you to do so, I would not find it there – I visit that site only when essential.

  5. Canadian elections definitely seem to historically be more volatile from election to election than they usually are in Australia. To an outsider, it looks like it might have something to do with a combination of less party loyalty and generally having 3 competitive parties competing in a first past the post system.

    The Liberals came very close to retaining government in Queensland at the 2015 election whilst losing Campbell Newman’s seat. Zak Kirkup’s hopes to retain his seat don’t look promising, even a 60-40 statewide result will likely see his seat lost. Seems a bit hard to fathom that the Newspoll 68-32 result would eventuate at an election, but if it did, it seems pretty much every Liberal held seat would be subject to at least somewhat of a danger of being lost.

    Australian elections definitely look like they have trended towards greater volatility in the 21st century, although has there ever been a case of a sitting government gaining a further 10%+ swing to it, or any party recording a 2PP of 65%?

    1. Tom the first and best

      Canada`s 3+-party system is certainly a factor in the far greater number of defeats of parties` leaders and the general volatility. However there are likely at least 4 other factors mostly or completely not present in Australia (in no particular order):

      1. First past the post, allowing vote splitting to change MPs far more often in seats with a natural majority for one side or the other.
      2. Voluntary voting allowing soft supporters of loosing parties on the nose to stay home.
      3. An electoral geography mostly less inclined towards natural geographical majorities for single parties, although Australia does have that in urban/suburban Queensland at least to some extent with its swings bringing in big seat hauls and allowing near wipe-outs of the ALP (1974 and 2012) and pre-LNP Liberals (2001).
      4. Different parties at national and provincial levels, reducing party loyalty.

  6. Interesting bit of history, thanks for this!

    Just a couple of notes – Adam Giles was not appointed Chief Minister in 2017, he’d lost by then.

    And you said you can’t think an example where a party leader won the election but lost his seat, but then listed one – Goff Letts in the NT in 1977.

    COMMENT: Thanks. My defence on Goff Letts is I was thinking of what happens in Canada where a Leader who wins the election but loses their seat stays as leader and comes back in a by-election. That doesn’t happen here.

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