September 25, 2022

The Tied Election

In the Victorian State election in 1985, something straight out of a bad Hollywood movie went down. A tied election, decided by a lucky dip.

Picture of Victorian Premier John Cain
John Cain

John Cain comes from the most successful Labor party family in Victorian political history.

His father, John Cain senior, was Premier three times between 1943 and 1955, which was quite an achievement for the era. In contrast to its current status as Australia’s most progressive state, Victoria used to be the bedrock of conservative political ideology; the Liberal Party was founded in Melbourne by Robert Menzies, and Labor struggled to attract consistent support.

John Cain sr was the state’s first Labor Premier, and the only one it would produce until the rise of his son.

John Cain first tried to enter politics in 1957, when he was only 26, to replace his retiring father in the seat of Northcote. Amazingly, for the son of such a prominent Labor figure, he was defeated in a tight pre-selection battle.

This was a difficult period for the ALP, both in Victoria and nationally. Committed anti-communists would split the party in two, eventually breaking away to form the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP splintered the Labor vote and consigned the party to decades in the wilderness.

Cain had studied law at Melbourne uni, and sat most of this period out, working as a barrister in private practice.

Labor wins in 1982

He became politically active again in the late 1960s, joining a group of reformers known as ‘The Participants’. Supporters of Gough Whitlam, The Participants determined to modernise the Labor Party, and return them to elected office.

Cain was appointed President of the Victorian Labor Party in 1973, and was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1976.

The Liberal Party’s fortunes were finally on the wane. After 7 consecutive election victories, most of them comfortable, they were returned with a tiny one seat margin in 1979. The government had run out of energy, and the local economy was struggling.

Cain assumed the Labor leadership in 1981, and the following year lead the party to a historic landslide victory; they won 17 seats from the government, and recorded the largest swing to Labor in the state’s history.

Jeff Kennett; young Liberal leader

Cain’s government would be centrist, but reform minded.

Their key policy was a substantial increase in government spending, to stimulate the economy. They also provided additional funding for public education, and strengthened the state’s environmental protection laws.

Minor changes included legislation to extend Saturday trading, to allow AFL games to be played on Sunday (previously prohibited), and a relaxation of the state’s hardline drinking laws, which prevented bars from staying open past 6pm (the infamous 6 o’clock swill, discussed here).

Cain was a popular leader with a common touch, deft at communicating with everyday people. In opposition for the first time in three decades, the Liberal Party turned to a younger leader in Jeff Kennett, a fiery conservative from Burwood, as they looked to rebuild.

As the 1985 election approached, Labor appeared set for a comfortable victory.

Simpler time; ALP ad for the 1985 election

Between 1982 and 1985, the Australian Electoral Commission dramatically redrew the electoral map in Victoria.

The Legislative Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, was significantly expanded, gaining 7 seats and going from 81 to 88 electorates. The Legislative Council, the upper house, had half the number of seats, at 44.

The mechanics of upper house voting worked quite differently to the present day. The state was divided up into 22 ‘provinces’, that each elected two candidates. One of these candidates then stood each time, leaving one sitting member not up for election. This system favoured the major parties, who won the majority of upper house seats.

John Cain with Bob Hawke

The state election was held on March 2, 1985.

As expected, John Cain was returned as Premier, the first Labor leader in Victoria to be re-elected.

Labor’s results were more or less unchanged from the previous election; they won 47 seats, two less than 1982, with a similar share of the vote. Kennett’s Liberal Party, though defeated, did manage to win a 3% swing to them, and 7 additional seats, mostly from the new electorates that had been created.

Eyes then turned to counting in the upper house. This was much tighter; the two parties close to a dead heat. Counting took several weeks, at the end of which Labor was declared to hold 22 seats, and the Liberal and Country Party, 21.

One seat was too close to call; Nunawading.


Nunawading Province was in Melbourne’s east.

Centred on the suburb of the same name, it also included Box Hill, Forest Hill and Donvale. It was a mixed electorate, mostly residential, middle class workers, young families, and older immigrants.

The demographic mix usually split the vote between Labor and Liberal fairly evenly.

In the 1985 election, Labor’s Laurie Macarthur was the sitting member, and so not facing re-election. The other seat was expected to be won by the Liberal’s Rosemary Varty.
Varty lead on first preferences, but it was much closer than expected; her lead over Labor’s Bob Ives was just 350 votes. The outcome in the province, and so control of Victoria’s upper house, would come down to the distribution of preferences from the only other candidate, The Democrats Michael Nardella.

Newspaper ad for Rosemary Varty: Vote Varty!

Scrutinised closely by officials from both parties, the preferences were carefully allocated.

These were also evenly split, but favoured the ALP slightly. 44 disputed ballots were excluded.

On March 13, ten days after the election, a final, incredible result was announced; Varty and Ives had tied, both of them securing 54 821 votes, after preferences.
It is the only recorded instance of a tied election result in modern history.

'The Age' reports the strange outcome.

While this scenario seems almost unbelievably unlikely, there is law to cover the result of an electoral tie in Australia; the chief electoral officer has to cast a deciding vote.

In this case this was Kathleen Leonard, a Nunawading election official.

Faced with a unique scenario, and unsure how to decide who should win, Leonard came up with a creative solution. She would draw a name at random. Both candidates had their names written on a piece of paper and placed into a ballot box, while Leonard closed her eyes and drew one name out.

The name she pulled out, was Labor’s Bob Ives.

Labor had won the final upper house seat, and would control both houses of parliament for the first time in Victorian history.

But their victory would be short lived.

The Liberal Party took the election result to the Court of Disputed Returns. After a month long investigation, Justice Starke found that their had been irregularities in how the vote count had been conducted, most significantly in relation to the excluded ballots.

He ordered the result void, and a new by-election to be held in August.

The Nunawading by-election

This was not without controversy.

The unusual nature of the contest attracted more candidates; nine this time, as opposed to three at the full election. One of the higher profile of these was Jennifer Cotterell, standing for the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP).

During the campaign she complained that Labor had been circulating bogus ‘How to vote’ cards with the NDP’s logo on it. These indicated to preference the ALP ahead of the Liberals, whereas the real NDP cards advised voters to select their own preference order.

The ALP denied their involvement.

John Cain's final cabinet, 1988

And ultimately, it didn’t matter. This time Rosemary Varty won comfortably; while she attracted much the same vote as first time round, Labor’s vote was nearly 10 000 votes lower, indicating that all of the minor party’s had eaten into their support.

Kennett hailed the result as a ‘stunning victory’, and used it to help him survive politically, after the disappointment of the election loss.

The Cain government was elected for a third term in 1988. The State Bank collapse, Joan Kirner and Kennett’s ‘Revolution’, were all still in the future.


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