Liberal Party elder statesman Jim Killen died last week. He represented the Brisbane based seat of Moreton in the federal parliament from 1955 to 1983 and was one a dwindling number of former MPs who served in the Menzies era.
One of the most frequently recounted aspects of Killen’s career relates to his extremely tight and crucial victory in the seat of Moreton in the 1961 election, which was pivotal in keeping the Liberals in government and Robert Menzies as Prime Minister. Like many things in politics, there is a lot of mythology about that particular event – not all of it generated by Killen himself. Now is as good a time as any to outline some of the facts, including what the precise votes and preference flows from that contest actually were.
The reason why Killen’s win in Moreton was so crucial is because it delivered the Coalition parties a majority of 62 votes to 60 votes for Labor in the House of Representatives, keeping Robert Menzies as Prime Minister. A long-standing story was that Menzies sent a delighted telegram, saying simply “Killen, you are magnificent.” This piece in The Age notes that
“Killen revealed in his memoirs, all Menzies ever said to him in a brief telephone call was, “Well laddie, this is good news. I’m glad it’s over.” Sir James invented the telegram wording to give a break to a journalist friend looking for a good news story.”
Of course, the story rather helped Killen as well as his journo friend, but I guess one can’t begrudge him that.
One fact which is rarely noted about the 1961 result is that even with Killen’s win in Moreton, Labor actually won the same number of House of Representatives seats as the Coalition. Both Labor and the Coalition won 62 seats, but 2 of Labor’s seats were for the Northern Territory and the ACT, whose representatives at that time only had limited voting rights. Their votes could not be counted on matters such as confidence votes which determine who would be in government.
Another frequently repeated story is that Killen won Moreton on the preferences of the Communist Party candidate (see examples in this Age article and in these speeches by John Howard). This of course has a delicious irony because Moreton delivered government to Menzies, and Menzies was a long-standing anti-communist campaigner (or ‘Red baiter’ if you prefer). A variant on this is that the Communist preferences were a consequence of ‘donkey votes’, where people vote 1 for whichever candidate happens to be at the top of the ballot paper and then just fill in their other preferences in order down the ballot.
Both variations of the story – that the seat was won on communist preferences and that this was the result of the donkey vote – are not really correct, although there is enough truth in both for people to be able to argue the technicalities if they really want to. Of course, in politics a technically arguable proposition is often all that is needed for it to be asserted – repeatedly and aggressively if necessary – as indisputable fact.
Here’s the full vote count from that seat, in ballot paper order.
Christian Jarman Hagen – Democratic Labor Party (DLP)* 3 882
Max Nordan Julius – Communist Party of Australia (CPA) 676
Denis James Killen – Liberal Party 22 667
John Edward O’Donnell – Australian Labor Party (ALP) 25 123
(The total number of Informal votes was 1 921)
In distributing the preferences of the 676 CPA votes, 390 (or 57.7% of them) went to the ALP, 193 (28.5%) went to the DLP and 93 (13.8%) to the Liberal. This left the tally as follows:
DLP 4075, Lib 22 760, ALP 25 513.
In distributing the DLP’s 4075 votes, 3479 (or just over 85% of them) went to the Liberal and 596 went to the ALP, leaving a final tally for Killen of 26 239 and for O’Donnell of 26 109.
* I am fairly sure that at the 1961 election, DLP candidates in Queensland actually ran under the label of QLP – Queensland Labor Party. Their Senate candidate in 1961 was Vince Gair (a former Labor Premier before the big split) and they were affiliated with the DLP nationally. I’ve used DLP to avoid confusion.
The simple facts are that it was a DLP candidate who was top of the ballot paper, with the Communist Party candidate second, and the small proportion of preferences that went from the Communist candidate to Killen was well short of delivering him victory without the huge flow of preferences from the DLP, (a flow which in itself was not particularly unusual).
Regardless of this, the number of preferences from the Communist Party candidate which went to Jim Killen was 93, and the final margin of Killen’s victory in Moreton – and hence the final margin between there being a Liberal or Labor Prime Minister – was 130 (which means if 66 people had voted the other way, it would have changed the result and potentially the government). It is therefore true to say that if Killen had got absolutely zero preferences from the Communist candidate, he would not have won. But all he needed was 28 Communist preferences from their total of 676 votes (or fewer than 5%). A leakage of preferences of 5 per cent is not at all unusual – indeed it would be quite rare for a leakage of that amount not to occur.
What I find much more remarkable, and don’t recall ever seeing any comment about anywhere, is the very large percentage of Communist Party preferences which went to the DLP. Menzies may have campaigned against the communists for a long-time (he did try to make the whole party illegal after all), but being anti-communist was one of the central tenets of the DLP’s whole existence. It was tensions surrounding attitudes towards communist sympathisers that were central to the split within the ALP in the 1950s and the formation of the DLP in the first place. I find it surprising that nearly 30% of Communist Party voters gave their next preference to the DLP – something which can’t be explained by a donkey vote effect. Perhaps it was a 1960s version of an anti-major party vote – anyone but Liberal or Labor? In any case, of itself it had no impact on the election result, which may be why I’ve never seen mention of it, despite it being the thing that struck me as most unusual about the ballot count.
What may have been crucial about those 193 people who voted Communist 1 and DLP 2 is where they put their number 3. It may well be that in amongst the torrent of 3479 DLP preferences that pushed Killen over the line were a crucial 66 ballot papers which had a 3 written beside Killen’s name, rather than the Labor man. Unless those 45 year old ballot papers are still preserved in some archive somewhere, that is something we will never know, as the official electoral returns do not go to that level of detail (and still don’t for modern elections).
It is also partly true to say that the donkey vote helped Killen, although any donkey vote in this case is reflected in votes for the DLP and preferences flowing from their candidate, not the Communist candidate. I don’t know what the average distribution of DLP preferences was in similar seats in that election, so I can’t assess that impact, although an 85-15 split between Liberal and Labor doesn’t sound particularly unusual to me. The DLP primary vote for Moreton of 7.4% was almost exactly on the DLP’s state average for Queensland.
It is almost impossible to accurately assess the true donkey vote in any given seat. However, whilst there are varying views about how large the donkey vote is on any occasion, given the extremely small final margin, it is reasonable to argue that the positional advantage of Killen being higher on the ballot paper than the Labor candidate made a sufficient difference. (if you are interested in further detail, this paper in the Election Law Journal by Graeme Orr goes into suitably scholarly detail, including a mention of the 1961 Moreton example)
In those days candidates were listed in alphabetical order, as opposed to randomly allocated as there are today, so one could even argue that all other things being equal, if Labor had preselected a candidate whose last name started with any letter from A to J, rather than O, they would have won the seat and thus government. Of course, all other things never are equal, and it is impossible to know what qualities the Labor candidate brought to vote winning, besides his name. Given his name was O’Donnell, it is reasonable to guess that he was of Irish Catholic background, which was also the background of many DLP voters – which has its own bit of irony given the big DLP preference flow won the seat for Killen.
One of the reason why mythologies like the above live on is because they can be useful for all sorts of illustrative reasons. Following are a range of examples I found through a quick Google. Many show how such mythologies are not just psephological curiosities for trivia night contests, but can be used as weapons of political rhetoric.
This discussion thread on John Quiggin’s blog a year ago was about the Iraq war (with argument opening up around the usual ‘left vs right’ fault line). One commenter (at comment #43) used the ‘Killen won because of the communists’ myth to argue “the Commos gave their preferences to the Tories because they argued that the Tories would by stupid maladministration bring on the crisis in capitalism. The Commos miscalculated.” Another person (at #45) ‘corrects’ him by saying (wrongly) that “the Communist vote was inflated by the fact that they had the “donkey vote”, (as) their candidate was 1st on the Ballot paper.”
The communist preferences story was cited in 2002 as a part of this detailed critique of historical differences between various strands of Australian socialists:
The Communist candidate in the seat, the Brisbane solicitor Max Julius, was at the top of the ballot paper and consequently his couple of hundred votes were inflated by the donkey vote, which unfortunately flowed down the ticket to Killen, who was thus elected by this leakage of Communist preferences. The fact that the Menzies government got back by one seat on these preferences was thereafter used against the CPA by vindictive Laborites.
This biography entry of Killen, taken from an outdated Wikipedia entry, repeats all three myths – the Menzies quote, the Communist preferences and a wrong description of the donkey vote. Former federal Liberal Minister Peter Howson, repeats the Communist preferences story in this speech, complete with a completely imaginary figure, (and adds in the Menzies’ telegram myth for good measure) as a prelude to launching into a hardline ideological diatribe against the ‘left’. Even this biography of the Communist Party’s candidate at the time, Max Julius, says “his preferences were essential to the Liberal candidate, (Sir) James Killen, winning Moreton, thus securing the return of the Menzies government.”
Of course, not everyone repeats the same story. Indeed, as this piece at Diogenes Lamp points out, even saying it was the Moreton result that ‘won’ the election can be seen as rather misleading. Their opinion is that it was the campaigning that then-Premier Henry Bolte did in Victoria which made the critical difference in saving Menzies’ bacon in the face of huge swings against him in every other state.
So many different perspectives derived from a single set of numbers!
Seeing I’ve gone into this much detail, I may as well mention a few other pieces of information just to make the historical picture more complete.
I don’t have a 1961 map and can only go by the names of the polling booths of the time, but given how much electoral boundaries have changed between 1961 and now, it is amazing that the seat of Moreton covers much of the same area now as it did then. The booths at the time were Coopers Plains, Darra, Moorooka, Mount Gravatt, Salisbury, Sherwood and Stephens – the majority of which are contained within the present boundaries (I am assuming that Stephens would have covered around the Tarragindi/Annerley/Greenslopes area).
Despite the big increase in overall seats (there were only 18 House of Reps seats in Queensland in 1961, compared with 29 at this year’s election), the total number of voters is much greater today. A little over 54 000 people voted in Moreton in 1961, compared with nearly 83 000 in 2004.
As noted above, there were only 7 polling booths in 1961, compared with 34 booths in 2004. The numbers of votes cast at some of the booths in 1961 was enormous. Salisbury booth had just over 12 000 votes cast and Mount Gravatt had just under that mark. Another booth had over 7000 and another over 6 000. In 2004, the busiest booth took in 5620 votes (which was Algester booth if you want to know, a suburb that would not have existed in 1961).
The best booths for Killen were Sherwood and Stephens, and the best for Labor were Coopers Plains and Darra. All those areas would probably lean similar ways relative to each other today. Killen also polled quite strongly in the postal votes, getting 50.0% of the primary vote from that pool of 1685 votes. If I had to make a definitive statement about what won (or saved) the seat for Killen, I would actually say he won it through the postals – which then as now can be an area where an incumbent can make up significant ground. Of course, saying the communists gave it to him sounds much more interesting than saying he won on postal votes.
One final point which punctures another myth which I’ve just reinforced myself in what I have written. If Killen had lost Moreton, it is not certain that Menzies would have lost office. It would have resulted in 61 seats each for both Labor and the Coalition (noting once again that Labor’s seats in the ACT and NT didn’t count in those days). Australia has (thankfully) never had a dead heat following an election, so it’s not totally certain what would happen next in such a situation. Many scenarios are conceivable, and all of them contestable. It is quite possible it would have resulted in a fresh election, which of course no one could predict the result of. However, such details, like much of those above, muddy a good story, which are generally best when the ‘facts’ are clear and simple.
One thing is for sure, if Menzies had lost the 1961 election, it would have meant we’d be hearing one storyline repeated all the way through to this year’s election. Menzies second period as Prime Minister started in December 1949. If 66 people had voted the other way in December 1961 and Menzies had lost, this year’s election would be all about whether John Howard would beat Menzies’ record as the longest continually serving Prime Minister in Australia’s history. The Communists didn’t play much of a role in preventing that scenario, but it is fair to say that James Killen did. That could be one final thing some people may wish to acknowledge him for.
His State Funeral will be held in Brisbane this Friday.
ELSEWHERE: Other blog pieces about James Killen include this piece on Ambit Gambit by long-time friend Jeff Wall. Here are some links to short pieces by one of his grandaughters and by Bannerman, as well as a personal anecdote by Paul Fogarty.