How people elect parliaments
Australia’s House of Representatives has not seen a member elected at a general election with a single-digit vote lead in nearly a century.
But voters in the division of Herbert in Townsville, Queensland may be about to do just that.
The election in the division of Ballaarat*, Victoria, in December 1919 produced a win for the Nationalist candidate Edwin Kirby over the Labor candidate and sitting member Charles McGrath by just 1 vote.
The Ballaarat result was overturned at a legal challenge following the revelation of minor vote irregularities which had denied a small number of voters their vote, and which could obviously have affected the result.
Labor MP Charles McGrath lost Australia’s closest ever House election by just 1 vote, but then challenged the result and recovered his seat at a re-run of the election (image: Wikipedia)
The overall 1919 election result was a big win for the Nationalist Party, so the Ballaarat result did not affect the political state of the Parliament. A re-election for the division was held in July 1920, at which McGrath fairly easily regained the seat.
On four other occasions there have been House election results by margins of fewer that 10 votes. These included the results in Riverina in 1903 (5 votes), Werriwa in 1914 (7 votes) and Macquarie in 1917 (9 votes). These three elections were all conducted on a first-past-the-post basis, and curiously all three were in rural and regional New South Wales.
The fourth single-digit case was in the division of the Northern Territory in 1922. That division has a voting population of just over 1,200 voters, so the result (608 to 599 votes) is less relatively dramatic.
Another case of a margin of fewer than 10 votes occurred at the by-election for the division of Griffith in 1939 (8 votes).
In addition to these 6 results, at the 45 general elections since federation – including by-elections – a total of 15 further results have seen margins closer than 50 votes, and another 24 were below 100 votes.
The most recent double-digit win was Clive Palmers’s 53-vote win in the division of Fairfax in 2013.
In relative terms (that is, scaling for the historic growth in voter numbers), the 1-vote margin in Ballarat in 1919 is inevitably also Australia’s closest result, at around 0.004% of the total final vote.
The top 10 closest races had final margins of victory of 0.046% or less of the total vote.
To break into the records for the top 10 closest results, the still-to-be-finalised result in Herbert will need to have a margin of 40 votes or fewer.
If the Herbert outcome continues to be around 7 votes, as reported yesterday, the result will slot into the record books as the second-closest result ever at around 0.009% of total final votes.
Any Herbert result of 12 votes or lower will – in relative terms – beat for second place the 8-vote result in the by-election for the division of Griffith in 1939, which represented 0.014% of total votes.
Losing Herbert would deprive the Turnbull government of the 76 floor votes (not counting the Speaker) that it needs to suspend the standing orders of the House at will, which would be a significant inconvenience to the ability of the government to control the day-to-day proceedings of the House.
(*The division name was spelled that way until 1977).
Update: Kevin Bonham has also commented on the Herbert issue, including reflections on the closest historical results.