February 5, 2023

The Tied Election

In the Victorian State election in 1985, something straight out of a Hollywood movie occurred: a tied election, decided by a lucky dip.

Picture of Victorian Premier John Cain
John Cain jr

John Cain was the famous son of a Victorian political dynasty.

His father, John Cain sr, had three terms as Premier, winning elections in 1943, 1945 and 1952. He was also the last Labour Premier for an extended period, as the state came to be dominated by the Liberal Party.

The Liberals, founded in Melbourne by Robert Menzies in 1944, had an unbroken stint of 27 years in power, between 1955 and 1982. In this period, Victoria was often referred to as the 'jewel' in the Liberals crown.

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

Cain had studied law at Melbourne university, after his political defeat he worked as a barrister in private practice.

Labor wins in 1982

Cain became politically active again in the late 1960s, joining a group of Labor Party reformers known as ‘The Participants’. Supporters of Gough Whitlam, The Participants were determined to modernise the party.

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

The state 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 seemingly 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 victory; they gained 17 seats, and recorded the largest swing to Labor in the state’s history.

Jeff Kennett campaigns in 1985

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.

Other changes included an extension to Saturday trading, allowing VFL games to be played on Sunday (previously prohibited), and a relaxation of the state’s drinking laws, which had 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 young leader in Jeff Kennett, a fiery conservative from Burwood.

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

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 expanded, gaining 7 seats to go from 81 to 88 electorates. The Legislative Council, the upper house, also grew to 44 seats, as it was required to have half the number of the lower house.

The system used in the upper house was different to the present day.

The state was divided 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 nearly all the upper house seats.

John Cain with Bob Hawke

The 1985 election was held on March 2.

As expected, John Cain was returned as Premier, the first Labor leader in Victoria to be re-elected (his father's three victories had all been followed by a subsequent loss).

Labor’s results were similar to 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 , and 7 additional seats, most from the new electorates that had been created.

The results in the upper house were much tighter. Counting took several weeks, at the end of which Labor held 22 seats, and the Liberal and Country Parties, 21.

One seat, in the province of Nunawading, was too close to call.

Location of Nunawading
Location of 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, with a classic suburban profile: middle class workers, young families, and older immigrants.

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

In the 1985, 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 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

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, officials announced an incredible result: Varty and Ives had both secured 54 821 votes, after preference distribution. The election in Nunawading was a tie.

A recount confirmed the result. It is the only instance of a tied result in any major modern election, anywhere in the world.

'The Age' reports the strange outcome.

While this scenario seems almost unbelievably unlikely, there was law to cover a tie: the chief electoral officer had to cast a deciding vote. This was Kathleen Leonard, a local official.

But the statute did not indicate how she should vote; the decision was left to her.

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 in an empty ballot box, Leonard then closed her eyes and drew one out.

The name she selected was Bob Ives.

This gave the final upper house seat to Labor. Cain's government would control both houses of parliament, the first time any Victorian government had done so.

There was an immediate outcry from the Liberal Party and their supporters.

The Nunawading by-election

The Liberals took the result to the Court of Disputed Returns.

After a month long investigation, Justice Starke found that their had been irregularities in how the count had been conducted. This focussed more on the excluded ballots, than the unusual lucky dip that had been used to decide the winner.

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

The publicity surrounding the results now attracted more candidates. Nine people stood, including Jennifer Cotterell of the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP); Varty and Ives again represented the major parties.

During the campaign Cottrell complained of dirty tricks. ‘How to vote’ cards had been circulating in the electorate, showing the NDP’s logo and indicating to preference Labor ahead of the Liberals; the real NDP cards advised voters to select their own preference order.

The ALP denied any involvement.

John Cain's final cabinet, 1988

This time the by-election had a clear result: Varty won comfortably.

While the Liberals attracted similar support to the previous election, Labor’s vote was nearly 10 000 lower. The wider spread of candidates had impacted Labor's support, more than the Liberals.

Kennett hailed the result as a ‘stunning victory’. Under pressure after his election defeat, he used the by-election to shore up his position, and was able to continue as Liberal leader. The upper house would be evenly balanced, and the government would have to negotiate to pass legislation.

Pyramid Building Society collapse
Pyramid Building Society collapse

Cain was elected for a third term in 1988.

But he would resign in 1990, after a scandal erupted out of the collapse of the Pyramid Building Society. Pyramid had taken advantage of lax regulation to expand rapidly, when the company foundered the government guaranteed all of its unsecured assets, which ultimately cost taxpayers $900 million.

Cain was accused of corruption, and the bailout was broadly unpopular.

He was replaced by Joan Kirner, who would lose a subsequent election to Jeff Kennett in 1992.

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