Australian federal election, 1972

Australian federal election, 1972
2 December 1972

All 125 seats of the Australian House of Representatives
63 seats were needed for a majority
  First party Second party
Leader Gough Whitlam William McMahon
Party Labor Liberal/Country coalition
Leader since 8 February 1967 10 March 1971
Leader's seat Werriwa Lowe
Last election 59 seats 66 seats
Seats won 67 seats 58 seats
Seat change Increase8 Decrease8
Percentage 52.70% 47.30%
Swing Increase2.50 Decrease2.50

Prime Minister before election

William McMahon
Liberal/Country coalition

Subsequent Prime Minister

Gough Whitlam

Federal elections for the House of Representatives were held in Australia on 2 December 1972, and were won by the Australian Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam. Labor won 67 of the 125 seats contested and defeated the Liberal Party led by Prime Minister William McMahon and Coalition partner the Country Party led by Doug Anthony. The elections ended 23 years of successive Coalition governments which held power since 1949.


House of Reps (IRV) — 1972–74—Turnout 95.38% (CV) — Informal 2.17%
Party Votes % Swing Seats Change
  Australian Labor Party 3,273,549 49.59 +2.64 67 +8
  Liberal Party of Australia 2,115,085 32.04 2.73 38 8
  Country Party 622,826 9.44 +0.88 20 0
  Democratic Labor Party 346,415 5.25 0.77 0 0
  Australia Party 159,916 2.42 +1.55 0 0
  Other 83,259 1.26 0 0
  Total 6,601,050     125
  Australian Labor Party WIN 52.70 +2.50 67 +8
  Liberal/Country coalition   47.30 2.50 58 8
Popular Vote
Two Party Preferred Vote
Parliament Seats

See Australian Senate election, 1970 for Senate composition.

An election for a Queensland Senator was held to replace Liberal Senator Annabelle Rankin who resigned in 1971.[1] Neville Bonner, who was appointed to fill the casual vacancy by the Queensland Parliament, won the Senate position. The election was held at the time of the House of Representatives elections as per Section 15 of the Constitution.

Seats changing hands

Seat Pre-1972 Swing Post-1972
Party Member Margin Margin Member Party
Bendigo, Vic   Labor David Kennedy 3.0 3.2 0.2 John Bourchier Liberal  
Casey, Vic   Liberal Peter Howson 5.0 7.2 2.2 Race Mathews Labor  
Cook, NSW   Liberal Don Dobie 2.8 3.5 0.7 Ray Thorburn Labor  
Darling Downs, Qld   Liberal Reginald Swartz N/A 3.4 11.3 Tom McVeigh Country  
Denison, Tas   Liberal Robert Solomon 2.6 7.2 4.6 John Coates Labor  
Diamond Valley, Vic   Liberal Neil Brown 6.1 7.7 1.6 David McKenzie Labor  
Evans, NSW   Liberal Malcolm Mackay 1.2 3.9 2.7 Allan Mulder Labor  
Forrest, WA   Labor Frank Kirwan 1.1 4.7 3.6 Peter Drummond Liberal  
Holt, Vic   Liberal Len Reid 3.5 7.9 4.4 Max Oldmeadow Labor  
Hume, NSW   Country John Pettitt 1.0 2.9 1.9 Frank Olley Labor  
La Trobe, Vic   Liberal John Jess 5.2 10.2 5.0 Tony Lamb Labor  
Lilley, Qld   Liberal Kevin Cairns 1.7 1.7 0.0 Frank Doyle Labor  
Macarthur, NSW   Liberal Jeff Bate 3.8 6.0 2.2 John Kerin Labor  
McMillan, Vic   Liberal Alexander Buchanan N/A 2.9 2.4 Arthur Hewson Country  
McPherson, Qld   Country Charles Barnes N/A 6.5 4.7 Eric Robinson Liberal  
Mitchell, NSW   Liberal Les Irwin 2.5 3.7 1.2 Alfred Ashley-Brown Labor  
Phillip, NSW   Liberal William Aston 0.4 4.1 3.7 Joe Riordan Labor  
Stirling, WA   Labor Harry Webb 5.5 8.4 2.9 Ian Viner Liberal  
Sturt, SA   Labor Norm Foster 0.5 2.2 2.7 Ian Wilson Liberal  


The 1972 election campaign dealt with a combination of Vietnam and domestic policy issues, and the role of the federal government in resolving these issues. The Coalition of the Liberal and Country parties had been in government for 23 years. Successive Coalition governments promoted conservative economics, trade, and defence. However, Australian economic prosperity during the post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s led to the emergence of a range of "quality of life" issues regarding urban development, education, and healthcare. By 1972 these "quality of life" issues came to represent a major political problem for the coalition parties. Traditionally all of these areas had been handled by the state governments, and the Coalition had always asserted the importance of states rights, a view backed by Liberal state premiers like Robert Askin and Henry Bolte. Throughout 1966 to 1972, Labor leader Gough Whitlam developed policies designed to deal with the problems of urban and regional development using the financial powers granted to the federal government under the Australian Constitution. As Whitlam put it, Labor focused on "cities, schools and hospitals", and these issues were electorally appealing especially to the young and growing baby boomer generation living in the outer suburbs of the major cities.

By contrast, Coalition policies of conservative economic management,increasing trade, and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War disengaged a significant number of Australian voters. Australian involvement in the Vietnam War was initially popular. However, protests grew as the consequences of the war became apparent and the likelihood of a US led victory diminished. A major part of the protests were directed at conscripting Australians to fight in the war. Liberal policies on Vietnam focused on the need to contain the spread of communism, but the gradual US and Australian troop withdrawal undermined this position. In 1971, Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam visited China. The Coalition heavily criticised the visit. The criticism soon became an embarrassent when US President Richard Nixon announced he would visit China the following year.

Finally the incumbent Prime Minister William McMahon was no match for Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator. McMahon's position was precarious to begin with as he had only emerged as Liberal Leader after a prolonged period of turmoil following the Coalition's unexpectedly poor showing at half Senate elections held in 1970, and various state elections. In early 1971, Country Party leader John McEwen had retired, to be replaced by Doug Anthony. McEwen, who had disliked McMahon, held a virtual veto over the possibility of his becoming Liberal leader, which he had exercised in 1968. Anthony declared that this veto was no longer in operation, clearing the way for a leadership challenge by McMahon against Prime Minister John Gorton. Gorton survived, but only narrowly, and soon called another leadership election, which he lost. This gave the impression of the Coalition being weak and divided, and consumed in internal struggles.

McMahon was further weakened by concerns about inflation and negative press coverage. For example, Rupert Murdoch and his newspaper The Australian supported the ALP. The ALP ran a strong campaign under the famous slogan, It's Time – a slogan which, coupled with its progressive policy programme, gave it great momentum within the electorate after 23 years of Conservative rule.[2]


The 1972 election ended 23 years of Liberal-Country rule—the longest unbroken run in government in Australian history. It is also unusual as Whitlam only scraped into office with a thin majority of 9 seats. Typically, elections that produce a change of government in Australia take the form of landslides (as in the elections of 1949, 1975, 1983, 1996 or 2007, for example). The comparatively small size of Whitlam's win is partly explained by his strong performance at the previous election of 1969, where he achieved a 7 percent swing, gaining 18 seats, from a low of 41 of 124 seats and a 43 percent two-party figure at the 1966 election.

The new Labor Government of Gough Whitlam was eager to make long-planned reforms, although it struggled against a lack of experience in its cabinet and the onset of the 1973 oil crisis and 1973–75 recession. In addition, the Senate was hostile to Whitlam, with the Coalition and Democratic Labor Parties holding more seats than the ALP, as the term of the Senate at the time was 1970 to 1974. This in particular would make governing difficult and led to the early double dissolution election of 1974.

See also


  1. "Glossary of Election Terms - Federal Election 2007". ABC. Retrieved 2016-07-30.
  2. Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. pp. 234–238. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9.


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