On Tuesday, July 20 this year (the day after the dissolution of federal parliament) there was published in Crikey an article by me titled “Mackerras: winter, winner . . . a trifecta for Labor’s cold snap election”. To be honest the article was a piece of bragging. It drew attention to the fact that on September 30, 2009 the second story in Crikey was headed: “Rudd will go to the polls on August 21, 2010. Here’s why”.
Part of my September 2009 reasoning was this: “If one looks at the calendars for 1943 and 2010, one notices that they are identical. Consequently the great John Curtin landslide occurred at a House of Representatives plus half-Senate election on August 21, 1943. Almost certainly Kevin Rudd will have a choice not available to Curtin. He could cause a half-Senate election or a general election for the whole Senate following a double dissolution. For a variety of extra reasons I lack the space to elaborate I expect him to double dissolve.”
The concluding paragraph of my July 2010 article was: “This is our third winter general election for the House of Representatives. The first was the Curtin landslide on August 21, 1943. The second was the Hawke double dissolution success on July 11, 1987. If Gillard gets the sort of win I am now predicting for her, then there will be a new Mackerras law of electoral history, namely “A Labor prime minister can be expected to call a winter general election if he/she has the constitutional grounds to do so.” A success rate of three out of three looks pretty encouraging for future Labor prime ministers.”
Fortunately for me it was widely noticed that I had been the first pundit to predict the election date. For example, writing about Tony Abbott in The Weekend Australian for September 25-26, Christian Kerr wrote: “Veteran political observer Malcolm Mackerras tipped August 21 as the election date more than 12 months ago. Mackerras knows his history. On August 21, 1943, John Curtin defeated a divided opposition to win Labor’s greatest victory. The party captured two-thirds of the House of Representatives. Mackerras made his prediction while the Coalition was tearing itself apart over climate change and a repeat of 1943 seemed possible. Instead, Abbott’s performance this August 21 to make 1940, the last election to deliver a hung parliament, the parallel is a tribute to his skills and his abilities.”
It can be seen that Kerr was a bit kind to me. I made three errors in September 2009. The first was to suppose that it would be Kevin Rudd exercising the prime minister’s right to name the election date. The second was to suppose Rudd would have the courage to double dissolve. The third, noted by Kerr, was to suppose that the Labor victory on August 21, 2010 would be roughly comparable with the Labor victory on August 21, 1943. Nevertheless, as Kerr and others have noted, I was the first pundit to name August 21 as the election date. Consequently I feel emboldened now to name Saturday, October 19, 2013 as the date for our 44th general election for the House of Representatives. It will be accompanied by the normal periodical election for half the Senate. Here is my reasoning.
I begin by demonstrating the falsity of the proposition, widely spread abroad by the media, that the Gillard Government is only one by-election away from defeat. To demonstrate that falsity, all I need do is correctly predict that there will be no by-election during the current parliamentary term. Historically there has been a recent term of the full three years in which there was no by-elecftion. That was the full term of the Chifley Government which ran from September 1946 to December 1949. In those days death was overwhelmingly the reason why by-elections occurred.
Not so today. Thus we had a general election in November 2001. There was not a single death during that term. Then we had a general election in October 2004. There was not a single death during that term. Then we had a general election in November 2007. Again there was not a single death. There were five by-elections, of course. In 2008 there were by-elections in Gippsland, Lyne and Mayo. In 2009 there were by-elections in Bradfield and Higgins. All five were caused by the resignations of former members. So the fact that there were five by-elections during the 2007-2010 term does not, I insist, mean there will be any this term. I confidently predict there will be no resignations.
So let me give some statistics. There have been 146 by-elections since Federation. However, it is sensible to divide that period of 110 years into two: from 1901 to 1981 and from 1982 to 2010. In the first period there were 66 by-elections caused by death and 42 for reasons other that death, for a total of 108. By contrast, since 1982 there have been 38 by-elections, of which 35 were caused by resignation, one was caused by the voiding of an election result by the court of disputed returns (Lindsay in 1996), one was caused by the suicide death of a member (Isaacs in 2000) and one was caused by the normal death of a member (Aston in 2001). These days members of our House of Representatives do not die in office.
I assert that Australia has had only four truly close elections. Four out of 43 means that close elections are rare. The ones I count are those of May 31, 1913, September 21, 1940, December 9, 1961 and our recent 43rd general election. Let me look at the by-elections of the three previous cases. There were eight, all caused by death. Two were in 1914, two in late 1940, the Boothby by-election in May 1941, one in 1962 and two in 1963. I name Boothby because it was the only case where a member died who was a supporter of the government of the day.
John Lloyd Price (United Australia Party) was a long-serving conservative politician. As member for Boothby (SA) he died in April 1941. The by-election was held in May and was won by his son, Archibald Grenfell Price. Although the Menzies government was in real strife at the time, the junior Price won easily. He was defeated by Labor in 1943 but his success at the by-election tells me that ordinary voters were (and still are) reluctant to change the government by changing one seat.
Consequently, of this I have no doubt. If any one of the 72 Labor members of the present House of Representatives were to die, the Labor Party would have no trouble winning the by-election. That is why I confidently predict that the present parliament will run its full term of three years.