Labor’s rare ACT casualty

15 March 2015

Smaller populations normally mean small proportions of representation in parliaments and other legislative chambers.  While there’s more than the odd instance of a gerrymander, whereby a government arranges electoral boundaries in a manner allowing its constituency to win more parliamentary seats with less votes than opponents, it’s more common for smaller regions to have smaller degrees of representation than larger ones.  And certainly as far as the House of Representatives in Federal Parliament is concerned, this used to be the case with the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Members of the House of Representatives have varied in number across Australia’s states over time.  But for decades, the territories had such small populations that single electorates covered either territory.  It wasn’t until electoral boundary changes driven by population growth gave the ACT two MHRs for the first time in 1974, while the Northern Territory didn’t have two MHRs until 2001.

These were just some of the facts coming into my head after I heard about the death of Kep Enderby earlier this year.

Enderby was a former ACT MHR and Whitlam Labor Government minister.  He was in fact the territory’s single MHR when the territory was split into two electorates ahead of a general election in 1974.  One of these two new electorates, which Enderby ran for and won, was Canberra, named after the national capital.  The other new ACT electorate was Fraser, named after a former MHR whose death enabled Enderby to enter Parliament via a by-election in 1970.

Interestingly, the ACT has long been considered a very safe region for the Labor Party.  And Fraser has stayed in Labor hands ever since its creation.  But Labor has twice lost Canberra to the Liberal Party, at a general election in 1975 and a by-election twenty years later.

Enderby was the Canberra casualty in 1975, at an election which followed the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr.  Despite much anger and rage over this extraordinary event, voters ultimately endorsed Kerr’s actions, giving the Coalition parties a whopping 91-36 victory over Labor.  This was Labor’s worst-ever Federal election loss, in terms of its proportion of seats in the House of Reps.  And Enderby was among six Whitlam Government ministers to lose their seats, being Attorney-General at the time.  Indeed Enderby, who also gained a reputation as an advocate fighting to change laws regarding homosexuality, had been Attorney-General for less than a year, getting the job after the departure of the controversial Lionel Murphy.

The Liberal candidate who beat Enderby in Canberra in 1975, John Haslem, held his seat at the next election, in 1977.  But Labor won it back at the election after that, in 1980, with Haslem losing to Ros Kelly, a future minister.

In 1995, in the aftermath of a scandal over government funding for sporting groups, Kelly resigned from Parliament, and Labor lost Canberra again, to Liberal candidate Brendan Smyth in a by-election.  Indeed Labor was largely on the nose with voters around the country at the time.  But Smyth wasn’t in Parliament for long, losing to Labor at the next general election, in 1996.

Because the ACT has long been rated a safe region for Labor in elections, Enderby holds the indignity of being a rare casualty for Labor here.  Seldom does Labor lose seats in this neck of the woods.