House of Representatives by-elections 1901–2017

5 March 2018

PDF version [845KB]

Stephen Barber
Statistics and Mapping Section

Executive summary

This paper provides details of House of Representatives by-elections, from that held for Darling Downs on 14 September 1901 to the most recent held on 16 December 2017 for Bennelong. The following observations can be made about those by-elections:

  • there have been 151 by-elections, an average of 3.4 per parliament
  • the average number of nominations has grown over the years from 2.2 per by-election to 12.0 per by-election
  • in only four cases was a by-election contested by just a single candidate
  • an increasing tendency has been for governments to avoid contesting by-elections in their opponents’ safe seats
  • in only ten cases have the opposition party failed to contest a by-election
  • seventy-six of the by-elections followed the resignation of the member, 68 members died in office, there have been six voided elections, and one MP was expelled from the House
  • since 1949 resignations account for almost two-thirds of by-elections and over half the resignations have occurred in safe seats
  • on 35 occasions the party complexion of a seat has altered at a by-election
  • five of the losses have been by the opposition of the day
  • the average two-party preferred swing against the government of the day has been 3.8 per cent
  • since 1949 the largest two-party swing against a government occurred against Labor in Canberra in 1995. The largest swing to a government occurred to the Coalition in McPherson in 1981.


Executive summary
Party abbreviations

The organisation of Commonwealth by-elections
The reasons why by-elections have been held
The timing of by-elections
Vacancies for which no by-election held
By-elections where members recontested
Number of nominations
Voter turnout

Party performance

Seats lost at by-elections
Impact upon party
Impact upon Government/Opposition
Party win/loss performance
By-elections caused by resignation—safeness of seat
Analysing by-election swings since 1949
Average swings against governments
Two-party preferred swings, by-elections, 1949–2017

Personal and political matters

The changing of the old guard
Future Prime Ministers
The exiting of Prime Ministers
Future Leaders of the Opposition
The exiting of Leaders of the Opposition
Family matters
Famous entries into the House
Kicked upstairs?
A matter of treason
By-elections that caused ripples
Voided elections

Appendix 1: House of Representatives by-elections, 1901–2017
Appendix 2: By-election results by electoral division, 1901–2017

First past the post electoral systemPreferential voting electoral system

Appendix 3: Notes on Commonwealth by-elections, 1901–2017
Appendix 4: By-election timing, 1901–2017Appendix 5: Sources on by-elections in Australia

General studies
Case studies


Party abbreviations

AAP Advance Australia Party
AC Australian Christians
ACons Australian Conservatives
ACP Australian Cyclists Party
ADVP Australian Defence Veterans Party
AFI Australians Against Further Immigration
AHP Affordable Housing Party
AJP Animal Justice Party
ALA Australian Liberty Alliance
ALP Australian Labor Party
ANAG Australian National Action Group
AntiSoc Anti-Socialist
AP Australia Party
APP Australian People’s Party
APPG Australian Pensioner Pressure Group
AR Australian Republican
ARM Australian Reform Movement
ASP Australian Shooters Party
ASxP Australian Sex Party
Atok Atokist
AusConst Australian Constitutionalist
BTA Bullet Train for Australia
CCC Climate Change Coalition
CDP Christian Democratic Party
CCE Conservatives for Climate and Environment
CEC Citizens Electoral Council
CM CountryMinded
Com Communist Party
Cons Conservative
Const Constitutionalist
CP Country Party
CRep Constitutional Republican
CTA Call to Australia
CYA Australian Country Party
Dem Australian Democrats
DLP Democratic Labor Party
DOGS Council for the Defence of Government Schools
DSP Deadly Serious Party
EcRef Economic Reform
EFN Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy
Farmers Farmers’ Party
FFP Family First Party
FishP The Fishing Party
FLP Federal Labor Party
FLR Family Law Reform Party
FP Future Party
FPA Federal Party of Australia
FST Australia First Party
FT Free Trade
FUT Science Party
Grn Greens
Gry Grey Power
GWA The Greens (WA)
HAN Pauline Hanson’s One Nation
HMP Help End Marijuana Prohibition
HPA Hope Party Australia
ICP Independent Country Party
ILab Independent Labor
ILCL Independent Liberal Country League
ILib Independent Liberal
INat Independent Nationalist
Ind Independent
KAP Katter’s Australian Party
LDP Liberal Democratic Party
LFF Liberals for Forests
Lib Liberal Party
LibF Liberal Forum
LLab Lang Labor
LNP Liberal National Party
LP Liberal Party
LRG Liberal Reform Group
NA National Alliance
NAP New Australian Party
Nat Nationalist
NCPP Non-Custodial Parents Party
NHP National Humanitarian Party
NLP Natural Law Party
NP National Party
NSP National Socialist Party
ON One Nation
ONNSW One Nation NSW Division
PCP Progressive Conservative Party
PIR Pirate Party Australia
PLP Progressive Labour Party
PORP Property Owners’ Rights Party
PP Progress Party
Prog Australian Progressives
Prot Protectionist
ProtLab Protestant Labor
PUP Palmer United Party
RARI Reclaim Australia: Reduce Immigration
RPA Republican Party of Australia
RSNP Returned Soldiers National Party
RUA Rise Up Australia Party
SA Socialist Alliance
SC Social Credit
SLib State Liberal
Soc Socialist
SP Socialist Party of Australia
SPA Secular Party of Australia
SPP Sustainable Population Party
ST Single Tax League
SUN Seniors United Party of Australia
SWP Socialist Workers’ Party
TA Taxpayers’ Association
TAP The Arts Party
UAP United Australia Party
UM Uninflated Movement
Unite Unite Australia Party
UTG United Tasmanian Group
UWU Unemployed Workers Union
VEF Voluntary Euthanasia Party
VFU Victorian Farmers’ Union
VOTE Voice of the Elderly
21CA 21st Century Party

Note: all tables and charts have been compiled by the Parliamentary Library.


This Research Paper updates an earlier Parliamentary Library Research paper and details the 151 by-elections for the House of Representatives held to date, including some of the factors involved in their being held.[1]

It also discusses relevant factors such as the timing of by-elections, the number of nominations, the voter turnout and party performance over the years, and the swings that have occurred.

The paper concludes with a general discussion of some of the personal and political aspects of the by-elections.

The organisation of Commonwealth by-elections

By-elections are held to fill vacancies in the House of Representatives resulting from the death, resignation, absence without leave, expulsion, disqualification or ineligibility of a member.

The first by-election was held in the Queensland electorate of Darling Downs, on 14 September 1901, barely four months after the opening of the new Commonwealth Parliament. The by-election followed the death of the sitting member, William Groom. The most recent by-election was held in the electorate of Bennelong (NSW) on 16 December 2017 following the resignation of the sitting member, John Alexander.

The reasons why by-elections have been held

Of the 151 by-elections, 68 (45.0 per cent) have occurred because of the death of the member, 76 (50.3 per cent) as the result of the resignation of the member, six (4.0 per cent) because of voided elections, and one (0.7 per cent) because of the expulsion of the member for Kalgoorlie from the House in 1920.

Over time, the reasons for by-elections have altered quite markedly:

  • from 1901 to 1979, 61.5 per cent of all by-elections were brought about by death
  • contrast, since 1980, 87.2 per cent of all by-elections have been brought about by resignation.

Vacancies brought about by resignation and death

Years Vacancy due to death
Vacancy due to resignation
1901–1979 61.5 33.7 4.8
Since 1980 8.5 87.2 4.3

The following graph further illustrates the changing pattern in the reasons causing by-elections.

Reason for by-election, by decade

Reason for by-election, by decade

One factor contributing to this changing pattern is that members today enter the House of Representatives at a generally younger age than used to be the case. Of the 41 parliaments to 2005, the second quarter’s intake (1929–1951) was the oldest, averaging 48.3 years per new member. By contrast, the fourth quarter’s intake (1977–2005) was the youngest at 42.2 years per new member.[2] [3] Another factor is the greater preparedness of members to leave Parliament—the cause of 87.2 per cent of by-elections since 1980—often to pursue another career. This has been aided by a third factor, namely the general increase in longevity of Australians brought about by, among other things, better health care.[4]

The timing of by-elections

Section 33 of the Australian Constitution confers on the Speaker of the House of Representatives the power to issue a writ for the election of a new member.[5] The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918–Part XIII specifies that the election (polling day) must be held between 33 and 58 days from the date the writ is issued.[6]

There is no prescribed time period within which a by-election writ must be issued and, in fact, there is no accepted view as to the period that should elapse between vacancy and polling day.

Perhaps surprisingly, this has not become a matter of any long-term political debate, allowing governments a great deal of freedom in the setting of by-election dates. The length of time from a vacancy until polling day has, therefore, varied considerably, with the maximum number of days being the 82 days for Moreton in 1983, and the minimum being the 17 days for East Sydney in 1903.[7] The total elapsed time from vacancy to election has increased since 1901. Between 1901 and 1949, the average was 40.3 days, whereas during the period 1949 to 2017 the average has been 51.4 days. The average figure for all by-elections has been 47.1 days.

Ideally, by-elections are held as early as possible after a seat becomes vacant, ‘so that the electors are not left without representation any longer than is necessary’.[8] In fact, such a consideration is occasionally pushed aside by short-term political factors. On 22 October 1982 the Member for Flinders, Phillip Lynch, resigned his seat. The Speaker fixed 4 December as the date for a by-election, but also declared that there would be a delay of almost three weeks before the writs for the by-election would be issued. According to Anne Summers, this gave the Fraser Government the option of calling a general election for 4 or 11 December.[9] The by-election could, therefore, have been pushed aside; although a double dissolution election was eventually held on 5 March 1983.

In the cases of the 15 by-elections held during 2000–2017, the delay between the date of the seat becoming vacant[10] and the date of the issuing of the writ varied considerably. The 45 days for Griffith and the 40 days for Gippsland contrasted with the virtually instantaneous issuing of writs for by-elections in Ryan, Lyne, North Sydney, New England and Bennelong.

By-elections, 2000–2017

Division Held by Date of vacancy Date of writ Delay in issuing writ Elapsed time from vacancy to by-election
Isaacs (Vic) ALP 14.06.00 30.06.00 16 days 59 days
Ryan (Qld) LP 05.02.01 09.02.01 4 days 40 days
Aston (Vic) LP 24.04.01 01.06.01 38 days 81 days
Cunningham (NSW) ALP 16.08.02 16.09.02 31 days 64 days
Werriwa (NSW) ALP 21.01.05 14.02.05 24 days 57 days
Gippsland (Vic) LP 09.04.08 19.05.08 40 days 80 days
Lyne (NSW) LP 30.07.08 04.08.09 5 days 38 days
Mayo (SA) LP 14.07.08 04.08.09 21 days 54 days
Bradfield (NSW) LP 19.10.09 30.10.09 11 days 47 days
Higgins (Vic) LP 19.10.09 30.10.09 11 days 47 days
Griffith (Qld) ALP 22.11.13 06.01.14 45 days 78 days
Canning (WA) LP 21.07.15 17.08.15 27 days 60 days
North Sydney (NSW) LP 23.10.15 26.10.15 3 days 43 days
New England (NSW) NP 27.10.17 27.10.17 0 days 36 days
Bennelong (NSW) LP 11.11.17 13.11.17 2 days 35 days

The variation allowed in regard to by-election dates is thus an anomaly in an electoral system that is generally highly regulated.

Appendix 4 provides details of the timing of all by-elections held between September 1901 and December 2017. It also shows the number of days elapsed between the seat becoming vacant and the by-election date, the number of days elapsed since the previous general election, and the number of days between the by-election and the next general election.

Vacancies for which no by-election held

There have been 20 occasions when the Speaker has, in fact, declined to issue such a writ for a by-election due to a pending general election. The longest period a seat has been without a member prior to a general election was 128 days in the case of Hindmarsh in 1909–10. The shortest period was the 39 days between 13 August 1940, when three MPs were killed in a plane crash, and the election of 21 September 1940.

The situation regarding the last of these occasions—Wills, 1992–93—was the result of the by-election held in November 1992 subsequently being voided by the Court of Disputed Returns. The successful candidate, Phil Cleary, was found to be in breach of Section 44(iv) of the Constitution and the Labor and Liberal candidates were found ineligible under Section 44(i).

By-elections where members recontested

There have been nine occasions where the previous member has recontested in a by-election. Of these, five members have been successful in retaining their seat.

The successful members were in the seats: East Sydney 1903, Echuca 1907, Lindsay 1996, New England 2017 and Bennelong 2017.

The unsuccessful recontests were in: Melbourne 1904, Riverina 1904, Ballaarat 1920 and Kalgoorlie 1920.

Vacancies for which no by-election was held, 1901–2017

Division Vacant Next election Days
Hunter (NSW) 30.09.03 16.12.03 77
Indi (Vic) 12.10.06 12.12.06 61
Northern Melbourne (Vic) 13.10.06 12.12.06 60
Hindmarsh (SA) 06.12.09 13.04.10 128
East Sydney (NSW) 24.12.09 13.04.10 110
West Sydney (NSW) 06.09.28 17.11.28 72
Wimmera (Vic) 14.10.31 19.12.31 66
Martin (NSW) 05.06.34 15.09.34 102
Ballaarat (Vic) 31.07.34 15.09.34 46
Werriwa (NSW) 02.08.34 15.09.34 44
Henty (Vic) 13.08.40 21.09.40 39
Flinders (Vic) 13.08.40 21.09.40 39
Corangamite (Vic) 13.08.40 21.09.40 39
West Sydney (NSW) 14.08.46 28.09.46 45
Hindmarsh (SA) 14.08.46 28.09.46 45
McMillan (Vic) 14.10.55 10.12.55 57
Leichhardt (Qld) 11.10.58 22.11.58 42
Warringah (NSW) 03.08.66 26.11.66 110
Bonython (SA) 30.09.77 10.12.77 71
Wills (Vic) 25.11.92 13.03.93 108

Number of nominations

The 151 by-elections have been contested by an average of 5.1 candidates. Over the years, however, there has been a steady increase in the number of nominations.

In the 24 first-past-the-post cases between 1901 and October 1918 the average number of nominations was 2.2 per contest.

In the following 127 preferential voting cases there has been an average of 5.7 nominations per by-election:

  • from the introduction of preferential voting in December 1918 to the end of the 1960s there was an average of 3.7 nominations per by-election
  • the 1970s and 1980s saw the first of two significant increases in candidate numbers, with 6.2 candidates per by-election over these decades
  • this was exceeded during the 1990s, with the average climbing to 8.1 candidates per contest
  • since 2000 a further climb to 12.0 candidates per by-election has occurred.

The record number of nominations has occurred twice in by-elections: Wills (Vic) in 1992 and Bradfield (NSW) in 2009. In the 1992 Wills by-election 22 nominations were received to fill the seat vacated by former Prime Minister Hawke. The field of 22 candidates that contested the 2009 Bradfield by-election was inflated due to the presence of nine Christian Democratic Party candidates. The 2017 New England by-election had 17 nominations, the third highest on record.

Candidates per by-election



Average number of candidates

Largest number of candidates

1901–2017 151 5.1 22 (2 cases)
1901–1918 (First-past-the-post) 24 2.2 4 (Tasmania 1902)
1918–2017 (Preferential voting) 127 5.7 22 (2 cases)
Preferential voting  
1918–1929 15 3.1 5 (3 cases)
1930–1939 12 3.7 6 (Wilmot 1939)
1940–1949 7 4.0 7 (Wimmera 1946)
1950–1959 16 3.7 6 (3 cases)
1960–1969 22 3.9 5 (8 cases)
1970–1979 8 6.5 12 (Parramatta 1973)
1980–1989 18 6.1 12 (Lowe 1982)
1990–1999 14 8.1 22 (Wills 1992)
2000–2009 10 11.5 22 (Bradfield 2009)
Since 2010 5 13.0 17 (New England 2017)

In only four cases, or 2.6 per cent, was a by-election contested by just a single candidate: Kalgoorlie 1913, Dalley 1915, Wide Bay 1928 and Cunningham 1956.

In recent years there has been a tendency for governments to avoid contesting by-elections in their opponents’ safe seats. Since 1990 the incumbent government has failed to contest 15 of the 29 by-elections held. In all cases bar one this has meant an easy win to the party holding the seat. In the case of Cunningham in 2002, however, the absence of a Liberal candidate helped the Australian Greens candidate win the seat from the ALP.[11]

By contrast, until the 2015 by-election in North Sydney, the official Opposition had contested every by-election from Dalley in 1953. Over the whole period the Opposition has failed to contest ten, or 6.6 per cent, of by-elections: Darling Downs 1901, Melbourne 1904, Echuca 1907, Adelaide 1908, Dalley 1915, Echuca 1919, Wide Bay 1928, Balaclava 1929, Bradfield 1952 and North Sydney 2015.

Voter turnout[12]

During the period of voluntary voting (1901–1924) the average turnout for by-elections was just 56.7 per cent. The lowest figure was 15.1 per cent in East Sydney in 1903. Since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924 the average by-election turnout figure has been 87.3 per cent. This contrasts with a 94.4 per cent turnout in general elections over that period.

During the compulsory voting years there has been a slight fall in the by-election turnout figure. Prior to 1970 the turnout in 62 by-elections was 88.5 per cent; the turnout for the 55 by-elections since 1970 has been 86.1 per cent. The lowest turnout figure over the compulsory voting period has been 69.5 per cent in Wentworth in 1981. Remarkably, there have been three by-elections in this electorate (1956, 1981 and 1995) and the average turnout has been only 75.9 per cent.

Party performance

Seats lost at by-elections

In only 35 of the 151 by-elections (23.2 per cent) has a seat altered its party status.

Seats lost at by-elections, 1901–2017

Division Government Sitting party Winning party
Melbourne (Vic) 1904 Prot Prot ALP
Riverina (NSW) 1904 ALP FT Prot
Adelaide (SA) 1908 Prot Prot ALP
Boothby (SA) 1911 ALP ALP Lib
Grampians (Vic) 1915 ALP ALP Lib
Wide Bay (Qld) 1915 ALP ALP Lib
Swan (WA) 1918 Nat Nat ALP
Corangamite (Vic) 1918 Nat Nat VFU
Echuca (Vic) 1919 Nat Nat VFU
Ballaarat (Vic) 1920 Nat Nat ALP
Kalgoorlie (WA) 1920 Nat ALP Nat
Maranoa (Qld) 1921 Nat ALP CP
Wide Bay (Qld) 1928 Nat Nat CP
Franklin (Tas) 1929 ALP Ind ALP
Parkes (NSW) 1931 ALP ALP Nat
East Sydney (NSW) 1932 UAP UAP LLab
Darling Downs (Qld) 1936 UAP UAP CP
Gwydir (NSW) 1937 UAP/CP CP ALP
Wakefield (SA) 1938 UAP/CP UAP ALP
Wilmot (Tas) 1939 UAP/CP UAP ALP
Corio (Vic) 1940 UAP UAP ALP
Henty (Vic) 1946 ALP Ind LP
Flinders (Vic) 1952 LP/CP LP ALP
Calare (NSW) 1960 LP/CP LP CP
Dawson (Qld) 1966 LP/CP CP ALP
Corio (Vic) 1967 LP/CP LP ALP
Bass (Tas) 1975 ALP ALP LP
Lowe (NSW) 1982 LP/NP LP ALP
Adelaide (SA) 1988 ALP ALP LP
Groom (Qld) 1988 ALP NP LP
Wills (Vic) 1992 ALP ALP Ind
Canberra (ACT) 1995 ALP ALP LP
Ryan (Qld) 2001 LP/NP LP ALP
Cunningham (NSW) 2002 LP/NP ALP Grn
Lyne (NSW) 2008 ALP NP Ind

Note: By the time of the Grampians by-election of 1917, the Liberal Party had been subsumed by the Nationalist Party. This by-election is, therefore, not included as an occasion when the seat changed party hands

Impact upon party

  • twenty-seven (17.9 per cent) by-elections have been lost by a major party to another major party.
  • four (2.6 per cent) have been lost by a major party to a minor party (Corangamite 1918, Echuca 1919, East Sydney 1932 and Cunningham 2002)
  • two (1.3 per cent) have been lost by a major party to an independent (Wills 1992 and Lyne 2008)
  • two (1.3 per cent) previously held by independents were won by a major party (Franklin 1929 and Henty 1946).

Impact upon Government/Opposition

  • in 24 by-elections (15.9 per cent) the seat has been lost by the government of the day
  • five seats (3.3 per cent) have been lost by the opposition of the day (Riverina 1904, Kalgoorlie 1920, Maranoa 1921, Cunningham 2002 and Lyne 2008)
  • four seats (2.6 per cent) have been lost by one Coalition partner to another (Wide Bay 1928, Darling Downs 1936, Calare 1960 and Groom 1988). Note that the losses of Corangamite in 1918 and Echuca in 1919 by the Nationalist Party were both to the Victorian Farmers Union which shortly thereafter formed the Country Party. However, as there was no formal anti-Labor coalition at this time, these are not included here
  • two seats (1.3 per cent) were won from Independents, one by the government of the day (Franklin 1929) and one by the opposition (Henty 1946).

Party win/loss performance

The table below shows, over the long haul, the major non-Labor parties of the day have not done quite as well as their rivals in terms of winning seats from other parties.

Party win/loss performance at by-elections, 1901–2017

Party Seats gained Seats lost
ALP 14 11
Major non-Labor parties* 11 18
CP/NP 4 4
Other 6 2
Total 35 35

* These figures include Riverina 1904, won by the Protectionists from the Free Traders.

On 11 of the 35 occasions where a seat has changed party hands at a by-election (Boothby 1911, Swan 1918, Kalgoorlie 1920, Franklin 1929, Wakefield 1938, Wilmot 1939, Flinders 1952, Adelaide 1988, Canberra 1995, Ryan 2001 and Cunningham 2002), the party that won the seat at the by-election lost the seat at the next general election.

By-elections caused by resignation—safeness of seat

The fact that relatively few seats have changed party hands in by-elections is probably due more to the propensity for by-elections to occur in safer seats, rather than any other factor. Political parties and individual members are only too aware of the possible political consequences of losing a seat at a by-election, and thus try to ensure that by-elections caused by resignation occur only in relatively safe seats. For example, since 1949, of the 61 by-elections that were caused by the resignation of the sitting member, only 11 have been in marginal seats (that is, seats requiring a swing of less than six per cent to change hands). By far the largest number of by-elections, 33, has occurred in safe seats (that is, seats requiring a swing of over ten per cent to change hands).

By-elections caused by resignation—safeness of seat, 1949–2017

  Number Percentage
Marginal 11 18.0
Fairly Safe 17 27.9
Safe 33 54.1
Total 61 100.0

Analysing by-election swings since 1949

Apart from a party’s success or defeat in a by-election, the most important aspect of a by-election is the swing that takes place. Conventional wisdom holds that there is usually a swing against the government of the day at a by-election. The success or otherwise of a government, opposition, or party leader at the by-election is often measured by the size of the swing in comparison with the average swing recorded in past by-elections. However, by-elections occur in varied and disparate electoral divisions, with different numbers and mixes of candidates and with a variety of local, state and national issues involved. It could, therefore, be argued that, given the variety of factors involved, there is no 'normal' by-election swing. By-elections are held in such varying circumstances that none can be regarded as typical, and it is generally agreed that any swing that occurs is usually explained by the special factors pertaining to each by-election.[13]

By-election swings can be calculated by comparing the first preference and two-party preferred votes received by the various parties at the by-election with the votes at the previous general election. The two-party preferred swing is more commonly used as it overcomes some of the difficulties inherent in using first preference swings. First preference swings can be affected by the number and nature of candidates and parties contesting the by-election when compared with the previous general election.

Average first preference and two-party preferred vote swings for by-elections held between 1949 and December 2017 are given below.[14] Swings cannot be calculated where one of the major parties (that is, ALP or LP/NP Coalition) did not stand a candidate at the by-election or the preceding general election, or where the division was uncontested at the by-election or the preceding general election.

The average two-party preferred swing against the government of the day in all by-elections held during the period 1949 to 2017 was 3.8 per cent. The swing against ALP governments (5.5 per cent) was somewhat higher than the swing against LP/NP Coalition governments (3.2 per cent) while the swing against the government of the day in government-held seats was 4.7 per cent. The average two-party preferred swing in by-elections caused by the death of the sitting member was just over half the swing in by-elections caused by the resignation of the member.

Average swings against governments

Two-party preferred swings at by-elections during the period have varied from an anti-government swing of 16.1 per cent in Canberra in 1995 to a swing of 16.2 per cent to the government in McPherson in 1981. The largest swing against an ALP Government was the Canberra figure, while the largest swing against a LP/(CP)NP Coalition Government was achieved when Gough Whitlam won Werriwa in 1952 with a 12.4 per cent swing.

Two-party preferred swings to the government of the day are a rare event in by-elections, with only 14 being recorded during the period. The largest swing to an ALP Government was in Wills in 1992 with a 5.9 per cent swing (although the ALP lost the seat to an independent candidate, Phil Cleary[15]) while the largest swing to a LP/NP Coalition Government was in McPherson, referred to above.

As the number of candidates contesting a by-election is generally larger than the number contesting the previous general election, first preference swings against the government tend to be higher than two-party preferred swings.

Average swings against governments in by-elections, 1949–2017

  First preference
per cent
Two-party preferred
per cent
All by-elections 5.5 3.8
Government held seats 6.3 4.7
LP/NP Governments 4.4 3.2
ALP Governments 8.2 5.5
By-elections caused by death 3.6 2.6
By-elections caused by resignation 7.1 4.9

Two-party preferred swings, by-elections, 1949–2017

ALP Government   LP/NP Government
Division Swing (%)   Division Swing (%)
Parramatta 1973 -6.6   Balaclava 1951 -3.4
Bass 1975 -14.6   Macquarie 1951 +0.4
Wannon 1983 -1.5   Lyne 1952 -8.8
Bruce 1983 -3.8   Flinders 1952 -11.0
Moreton 1983 -1.2   Werriwa 1952 -12.4
Corangamite 1984 -1.3   Bradfield 1952 n.a.
Hughes 1984 -5.0   Dalley 1953 n.a.
Richmond 1984 +0.5   Corangamite 1953 -6.5
Scullin 1986 -4.4   Lang 1953 -2.5
Adelaide 1988 -8.4   Gwydir 1953 -0.4
Port Adelaide 1988 -11.1   Cook 1955 n.a.
Groom 1988 -5.2   Cunningham 1956 n.a.
Oxley 1988 -11.8   Barker 1956 -9.9
Gwydir 1989 n.a.   Wentworth 1956 n.a.
Menzies 1991 n.a.   Richmond 1957 n.a.
Wills 1992 +5.9   Parramatta 1958 -6.4
Werriwa 1994 -6.3   Hunter 1960 n.a.
Fremantle 1994 +1.0   La Trobe 1960 -7.5
Bonython 1994 -7.8   Balaclava 1960 -4.6
Mackellar 1994 n.a.   Bendigo 1960 +0.1
Warringah 1994 n.a.   Calare 1960 +1.0
Kooyong 1994 n.a.   Higinbotham 1960 -9.2
Canberra 1995 -16.1   Batman 1962 n.a.
Wentworth 1995 n.a.   Grey 1963 +4.9
Gippsland 2008 -6.1   East Sydney 1963 n.a.
Lyne 2008 n.a.   Denison 1964 -1.9
Mayo 2008 n.a.   Angas 1964 -2.1
Bradfield 2009 n.a.   Parramatta 1964 -3.0
Higgins 2009 n.a.   Robertson 1964 -1.4
      Riverina 1965 -0.9
      Dawson 1966 -11.9
      Kooyong 1966 -3.8
      Corio 1967 -11.1
      Capricornia 1967 +1.5
      Higgins 1968 -0.3
      Curtin 1969 -7.1
Bendigo 1969 +2.1
Gwydir 1969 -7.7
Australian Capital Territory 1970 +13.8
Chisholm 1970 -2.8
Murray 1971 -0.4
Cunningham 1977 -0.3
Werriwa 1978 -11.3
Grayndler 1979 -6.9
Boothby 1981 -1.2
Curtin 1981 -7.5
McPherson 1981 +16.2
Wentworth 1981 -6.2
Lowe 1982 -8.5
Flinders 1982 -3.3
Blaxland 1996 n.a.
Lindsay 1996 +5.0
Fraser 1997 n.a.
Holt 1999 n.a.
Isaacs 2000 n.a.
Ryan 2001 -9.7
Aston 2001 -3.7
  Cunningham 2002 n.a.
Werriwa 2005 n.a.
Griffith 2014 +1.3
Canning 2015 -6.6
North Sydney 2015 n.a.
New England 2017 7.2
  Bennelong 2017 -4.8
n.a. not applicable

Personal and political matters

A stark listing of 151 electoral contests can disguise the fact that many of them involved noteworthy personal and political matters that are part of Australia’s political history.[16] Some of these are referred to below.

The changing of the old guard

A number of members were senior politicians at state level before they entered the federal Parliament, with this latter service being the swan-song for a number of them:

  • the death on 8 August 1901 of William Groom (Darling Downs 1901), the only convict to enter the Parliament, caused the first Commonwealth by-election to be held less than six months after the opening of Parliament
  • three Constitution-drafters died in the first decade after Federation, prompting by-elections: Edward Braddon (Wilmot 1904), Charles Cameron Kingston (Adelaide 1908) and Frederick Holder (Wakefield 1909). By contrast, John Forrest (Swan 1918), had enjoyed a much longer Commonwealth career, which included several ministries, with four periods as treasurer.

Future Prime Ministers

Seven future Prime Ministers entered the House of Representatives via by-elections. For Stanley Melbourne Bruce (Flinders 1918), Harold Holt (Fawkner 1935), Arthur Fadden (Darling Downs 1936), Gough Whitlam (Werriwa 1952) and Tony Abbott (Warringah 1994) this saw their entry into Parliament for the first time. James Scullin (Yarra 1922) had already served a term during 1910–1913, while John Gorton (Higgins 1968) had recently retired from the Senate.

The exiting of Prime Ministers

The exiting from Parliament of 16 of the 29 MPs who have held the office of Prime Minister has been the trigger for a by-election:

  • in two cases (Wilmot 1939 and Fremantle 1945) the by-election followed the death of the Prime Minister while in office—Joe Lyons and John Curtin, respectively
  • the by-election in Higgins in 1968 was caused by the disappearance, while swimming, of Prime Minister Harold Holt
  • Ben Chifley (Macquarie 1951) and William ‘Billy’ Hughes (Bradfield 1952) remained in Parliament after losing office, and both died while still MPs
  • some early Prime Ministers resigned from Parliament to assume other positions. Andrew Fisher (Wide Bay 1915) and Joseph Cook (Parramatta 1921) both became Australian High Commissioner in London. Stanley Melbourne Bruce had lost his seat in 1929, returned to the House in 1931, and left Parliament for good when he was appointed as Resident Minister in London (Flinders 1933)
  • since the departure of Robert Menzies (Kooyong 1966) only three former Prime Ministers have not caused a by-election by their departure from the House of Representatives—John Gorton (who unsuccessfully stood as an independent for the Senate in 1975), John Howard (who lost his seat in 2007) and Julia Gillard (who retired just prior to the 2013 election). The exceptional circumstances surrounding Harold Holt (Higgins 1968) is mentioned above. John McEwen (Murray 1971), William McMahon (Lowe 1982) and Gough Whitlam (Werriwa 1978) all remained in Parliament for a time after ceasing to be Prime Minister before resigning from the House. By contrast, Malcolm Fraser (Wannon 1983), Bob Hawke (Wills 1992), Paul Keating (Blaxland 1996) and, most recently, Kevin Rudd (Griffith 2014) all resigned their seats very soon after their loss of office. Kevin Rudd’s resignation came after his loss of office for the second time.

Future Leaders of the Opposition

Seven future leaders of the Opposition have been elected to the House of Representatives at by-elections: Stanley Melbourne Bruce (Flinders 1918), James Scullin (Yarra 1922), Arthur Fadden (Darling Downs 1936), Gough Whitlam (Werriwa 1952) and Tony Abbott (Warringah 1994), who all went on to become Prime Minister, and Andrew Peacock (Kooyong 1966) and Mark Latham (Werriwa 1994).

The exiting of Leaders of the Opposition

Of the sixteen Leaders of the Opposition who have not become Prime Minister, the passing from Parliament of eight has caused a by-election:

  • Frank Tudor (Yarra 1922) died in office
  • Herbert Vere Evatt (Hunter 1960), Billy Snedden (Bruce 1983), Bill Hayden (Oxley 1988), Andrew Peacock (Kooyong 1994), John Hewson (Wentworth 1995), Mark Latham (Werriwa 2005) and Brendan Nelson (Bradfield 2009) all left Parliament between general elections.

Family matters

Many retiring MPs have been replaced by family members. In four by-elections such a generational transfer has been from father to son:

  • three were caused by death—Littleton Groom replaced William Groom (Darling Downs 1901), Bernard Corser replaced Edward Corser (Wide Bay 1928) and David Oliver Watkins replaced David Watkins (Newcastle 1935)
  • the fourth father to son replacement was when Harry Jenkins senior became Ambassador to Spain in 1986. He was replaced by Harry Jenkins junior (Scullin 1986).

The retirements of both Alexander Downer senior (Angas 1964) and Alexander Downer junior (Mayo 2008) were both the occasion for a by-election to be held.

In two cases the family transfer has been from uncle to nephew:

  • Herbert Pratten to Frederick Pratten (Martin 1928) and David Riordan to William Riordan (Kennedy 1936).

Famous entries into the House

Some MPs have achieved a national prominence prior to their election to the House of Representatives via a by-election:

  • William Spence (Darwin 1917) had been a co-founder and long-time President of the Australian Workers' Union
  • successive Queensland Labor Premiers, Thomas Joseph Ryan (1915–1919) and Edward Theodore (1919–1925) entered the House of Representatives as MPs for New South Wales seats—Ryan in 1921 for West Sydney, and Theodore for Dalley in 1925
  • Archie Grenfell Price (Boothby 1941), Master of St Mark's College, University of Adelaide, was a noted Australian geographer
  • Garfield Barwick KC (Parramatta 1958) was a leading Australian barrister
  • John Gorton (Higgins 1968), former prominent member of the Senate, entered the House following his replacement of Harold Holt as Prime Minister
  • Steele Hall (Boothby 1981) had been Premier of South Australia 1968–1970, as well as a Senator for South Australia
  • Carmen Lawrence (Fremantle 1994) had been Premier of Western Australia 1990–1993. Lawrence's success was the first by-election victory by a woman candidate.

Kicked upstairs?

Many MPs have been appointed to prominent positions, thus ending their parliamentary careers. Some have seen this as an ideal way in which to leave the political hurly-burly, while for others there has been a suggestion that this was a means to push a potential leadership contender out of the picture:

  • by-elections were caused when Paul Hasluck (Curtin 1969) and Bill Hayden (Oxley 1988) accepted the office of Governor-General
  • Charles Abbott (Gwydir 1937) and Roger Dean (Robertson 1964) were both appointed Administrator of the Northern Territory, while Alex Wilson (Wimmera 1946) was appointed Administrator of Norfolk Island
  • some sudden departures have been caused by appointment to the judiciary. Edward McTiernan (Parkes 1931) and Garfield Barwick (Parramatta 1964) joined the High Court. Supreme Court appointments have also been made: William Irvine (Flinders 1918) in Victoria, Herbert Vere Evatt (Hunter 1960) in New South Wales, and Percy Joske (Balaclava 1960) in the Australian Capital Territory. Bob Ellicott (Wentworth 1981) was appointed to the Federal Court, while Nigel Bowen (Parramatta 1973) joined the New South Wales Court of Appeal
  • by far the most-used diplomatic position for appointments of former MPs has been the High Commissioner position in London, with the appointment of eight former members forcing by-elections. Former Prime Ministers Fisher (Wide Bay 1915) and Cook (Parramatta 1921) began the list, followed by Granville Ryrie (Warringah 1927), Thomas White (Balaclava 1951), Eli James Harrison (Wentworth 1956), Alexander Downer senior (Angas 1964), Vic Garland (Curtin 1981) and Neal Blewett (Bonython 1994)
  • various other members have accepted ambassadorships and other high commissions: Richard Casey (Corio 1940) and Howard Beale (Parramatta 1958) Ambassadors to the USA, Hugh Roberton (Riverina 1965) Ambassador to Ireland, Hubert Opperman (Corio 1967) High Commissioner to Malta, Lance Barnard (Bass 1975) Ambassador to Norway, Finland and Sweden, Les Johnson (Hughes 1984) High Commissioner to New Zealand, Harry Jenkins senior (Scullin 1986) Ambassador to Spain and Brendan Nelson (Bradfield 2009) Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union
  • other unusual official appointments include Archibald Ian Allan (Gwydir 1969) to the Secretary-Generalship of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Alexander Downer junior (Mayo 2008) moved to the position of United Nations Special Envoy for Cyprus, and Brendan Nelson (Bradfield 2009) to the positions of Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Special Representative to the World Health Organisation (in conjunction with his ambassadorship).

A matter of treason

On 7 November 1920 Hugh Mahon chaired a public meeting in Melbourne sponsored by the Irish Ireland League and, in a speech attacking the British presence in Ireland, spoke of ‘this bloody and accursed Empire’. His expulsion from the House of Representatives four days later for his ‘seditious and disloyal utterances’ was due to the House finding that he had been ‘guilty of conduct unfitting him to remain a member of this House’. Mahon's is the only expulsion to have occurred from the Parliament, and it forced a by-election (Kalgoorlie 1920) which he contested but lost.[17] The House of Representatives lost the power to expel members with the passage of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987. [18]

By-elections that caused ripples

Occasionally by-elections can be seen as having an importance beyond the immediate contest to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives.

Some were a sign of things to come electorally:

  • the by-election (Bass 1975) to replace Deputy Prime Minister Lance Barnard gave a very clear indication of the decline in popularity of the Whitlam Government that was confirmed in the December 1975 election[19]
  • the by-election to replace former Hawke and Keating Minister, Ros Kelly (Canberra 1995), presaged the Keating Government's defeat in the March 1996 election.[20]

Other by-elections have had a different type of political impact:

  • in late 1939, coalition negotiations between the United Australia Party and the Country Party broke down over Prime Minister Menzies’ insistence on his right to choose all ministers. The 1940 Corio by-election to fill the place of Richard Casey unexpectedly produced a Labor victory. According to former Country Party leader Earle Page this was instrumental in Menzies' weakening his stance and offering five Cabinet positions to the Country Party, with the leader of each party to choose his own party's representatives[21]
  • the Dawson by-election of 26 February 1966 was fought largely for Labor by the candidate, Rex Patterson, and the party's deputy leader, Gough Whitlam. The national leader, Arthur Calwell, was convinced that Labor could not win and took little part. To the surprise of many, Patterson was successful. Whitlam was due to come before the Federal Executive of the ALP on 2 March to face possible disciplinary treatment, possibly even expulsion. According to Graham Freudenberg, the last-minute change of stance of the Queensland delegates, grateful to Whitlam for the Dawson result, saved his position—and possibly his political career[22]
  • Labor’s failure to win the seat of Flinders in a by-election of late 1982 was said to have had a double impact. Bill Hayden’s position as Labor leader became increasingly insecure, while Prime Minister Fraser apparently became convinced of the need for an early election before there was any chance of Hayden’s replacement by Bob Hawke. The consequential replacement of Hayden and the announcement of an early election on the same day were thus intimately connected with the by-election's outcome[23]
  • during 1993–1994 much media discussion focussed on the possibility of Senator Bronwyn Bishop eventually assuming the leadership of the Liberal Party. When the seat of Mackellar fell vacant in 1994 Bishop secured Liberal preselection in an apparent move to clear the way for a push to the leadership. Labor did not contest the by-election and Bishop’s main rival was the writer, Bob Ellis, standing as an independent. Although Bishop won the seat comfortably with 52.2 per cent of first preferences, the Liberal first preference vote had fallen by 4.4 per cent. Although this was hardly a major loss of votes, her failure to increase her vote in the absence of a Labor candidate was considered enough to end any chance she may have had for the Liberals' top job. As fellow Liberal, Peter Reith, put it, ‘Most people within the parliamentary party were of the opinion that Bronwyn didn't have any votes within the parliamentary party ... if she didn’t have many before Saturday [that is, the by-election], she hasn’t got any more today’[24]
  • the latter half of 2017 appeared predominantly devoted to Section 44(i) of the Constitution, and the eligibility of many parliamentarians—both Senators and Members—to sit in their respective chambers because of dual citizenship was brought into question. Two Coalition members failed this eligibility resulting in by-elections which threatened to overturn the Government’s one seat majority. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce (New England, NP) was found by the Court of Disputed Returns to also be a New Zealand citizen while John Alexander (Bennelong, LP) had dual citizenship confirmed by British authorities. A further member, David Feeney (Batman, ALP), was referred by his own party to the High Court for a ruling in early 2018.[25] The Labor party and crossbenchers’ attempt to refer a total of nine members—four Labor, four Liberal and one from the Nick Xenophon Team—was defeated by the casting vote of the Speaker of the House, Tony Smith.[26] With the citizenship declarations by all Parliamentarians in December 2017 not clarifying the dual citizenship ‘crisis’, there is the possibility of further by-elections causing political instability up to the next election.

Voided elections

Some by-elections have been caused by the voiding of particular results after a general election: Melbourne and Riverina in 1904, Echuca 1907, Ballaarat 1920, Lindsay 1996 and New England 2017.

The Wills by-election of 1992 was itself voided, but another by-election was not held because of the proximity of the next general election.

Appendix 1: House of Representatives by-elections, 1901–2017 

Appendix 2: By-election results by electoral division, 1901–2017 

Appendix 3: Notes on Commonwealth by-elections, 1901–2017

Appendix 4: By-election timing, 1901–2017

Appendix 5: Sources on by-elections in Australia


[1].     S Barber, House of Representatives by-elections 1901-2015, Research paper series, 2015-16, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016, accessed 8 January 2018.

[2].     Figures from Chamber Research Office, Department of the House of Representatives.

[3].     The average age of new members was 45.4 years over the last four Parliaments (42nd to 45th); however, this only increases the average age of new members since 1977 to just over 43 years.

[4].     For example, in the period 1901­–1910, a 45 year old male (female) could expect to live another 24.8 (27.6) years while, in 2014–16, the additional life expectancy is 37.1 (40.6) years. Sources: ABS, Australian historical population statistics, 2014, 3105.0.65.001, tables 6.2 and 6.6; and ABS, Life tables, States, Territories and Australia, 2014–16, 3302.0.55.001, table 1.9, accessed 8 January 2018.

[5].     Australian Constitution, section 33, accessed 8 January 2018.

[6].     Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), accessed 8 January 2018.

[7].     Such a short period is no longer possible under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

[8].     ‘Elections and the electoral system’, in IE Harris, ed, House of Representatives practice, 6th edn, Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra, 2012, pp. 92-94, accessed 8 January 2018.

[9].     A Summers, Gamble for power: how Bob Hawke beat Malcolm Fraser, the 1983 Federal election, Nelson, Melbourne, 1983, p. 63.

[10].    ‘Members’ in IE Harris, ed, House of Representatives practice, op. cit., pp. 154-157.

[11].    S Bennett, The Cunningham by-election 2002, Research note, 18, 2002–03, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2002, accessed 8 January 2018.

12..    Note: The enrolment figure for the first by-election in Darling Downs in 1901 is not available, therefore, turnout cannot be calculated. Also the four by-elections contested by a single candidate are excluded from the calculations in this section.

[13].    Perhaps, surprisingly, the academic literature on by-elections in Australia is quite sparse, see Appendix 5.

[14].    No effort is made to look at two-party preferred figures between the introduction of preferential voting in 1918 and 1949, due to the difficulty in establishing such figures for the earlier period. All swing figures used in the paper are calculated on two-party preferred votes unless where otherwise indicated.

[15].    There were 22 candidates at the Wills by-election and the first preference swing against the ALP candidate was 19.3 per cent.

[16].    For general notes on by-elections, see Appendix 3.

[17].    IE Harris, ed., House of Representatives practice, op. cit., p. 157.

[18].    Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987, accessed 5 June 2014.

[19].    P Kelly, The unmaking of Gough, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, pp. 234–5.

[20].    M Gordon, A true believer: Paul Keating, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1996, pp. 297–301.

[21].    E Page, Truant surgeon: the inside story of forty years of Australian political life, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963, pp. 284–6.

[22].    G Freudenberg, A certain grandeur: Gough Whitlam in politics, Rev. and updated ed, Penguin, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 35–9.

[23].    Summers, Gamble for power, op. cit., pp. 13, 63.

[24].    L Taylor, ‘Poll result a blow to Bishop Libs’, The Australian, 29 March 1994.

[25].    David Feeney resigned on 1 February 2018 triggering a by-election which will be held on 17 March 2018,

[26]. Citizenship saga: Labor bid to send nine more MPs to High Court fails but ALP backbencher David Feeney referred, ABC News, 6 December 2017, accessed 8 January 2018.


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