What's the tightest race in Australian political history?

In a new paper I’m working on with Amy King, we say:

The closest Australian electoral race at a federal level was for the seat of Hawker (SA) in 1990, where the margin was 14 votes.

(Blair Trewin shows the distribution of preferences for that race.)

Are we wrong? If anyone knows of a federal electoral race that was decided by less than 14 votes, please let us know. To be specific, we’re interested in the gap between the top two candidates, once all other preferences have been distributed.

Follow-up post

This entry was posted in Australian Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to What's the tightest race in Australian political history?

  1. Mark Davis says:


    According to Adam Carr’s archive of election results the Victorian seat of Ballaarat (that’s how it was spelt in those days) was won by one vote in 1919.

    Here are the voting figures according to Adam:


    BALLAARAT, Vic 33,144 enrolled, 27,339 (82.5%) voted
    Central Victoria: Ballarat, Mt Pleasant, Creswick, Soldiers Hill
    1917 majority: none (ALP unopposed)
    Edwin KERBY Nat 13,569 50.0
    Charles McGrath * ALP 13,568 50.0
    202 (00.7%) informal 27,137 00.0
    Kerby’s one-vote victory is the closest result in any House of
    Representatives contest. Not surprisingly, the result was
    successfully challenged in the courts.

  2. Mark Davis says:

    More close local races in federal elections

    Werriwa 1914 7 votes 0.027
    Macquarie 1917 9 votes 0.033
    Stirling 1974 12 votes 0.022
    Hawker 1990 14 votes 0.021
    Brisbane 1917 15 votes 0.038
    Wannon 1954 17 votes 0.046
    Corio 1975 20 votes 0.032

    From scanning Adam Carr’s election archive (http://psephos.adam-carr.net/) for results with a 2PP margin of 0.1 ppts or less.

  3. It’s not from a federal election, but you can’t go past the Victorian Legislative Council seat of Nunawading in the 1985 election. Not only was the result a dead heat, but the Cain government was depending on it to control the upper house. The returning officer decided it by pullling the Labor candidate’s name, Bob Ives, out of a hat. However, the Court of Disputed Returns ordered a by-election, which the Liberals’ Rosemary Varty won.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Mark, thanks. Looks like there has been a decisive federal vote in Australia after all! (Depending on what “successfully challenged in the courts” means.) Andrew, very nice Vic eg.

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    According to Adam’s archive, Kerby only served from 1919-1920. McGrath then took over. Since the next election wasn’t until 1922, it looks like the courts overturned the result. So maybe we should describe the voters of Ballaarat in 1919 as “temporarily decisive”.

  6. David Walsh says:

    There was a by-election in 1920. McGrath won handily.

  7. Peter Martin says:

    South Australia had its own Nunawading, more than a decade earlier.

    In 1968 Labor’s Des Corcoran won the south coast seat of Millicent by one vote. I can’t find documents to support this, but my politics lecturer Dean Jaensch told me in the 1970’s that the vote was at first a tie, and was decided by the casting vote of the returning officer. But the returning officer had already voted! An appeal by the defeated candidate resulted in a by-election, which Corcoran comfortably won.

    But here’s the really historic bit: Had Corcoran not won Millicent (initially by vote, presumably cast twice) the Liberal Country League would have been seen to won that election legitimately. Instead Labor and the LCL had equal numbers and the LCL governed as a minority administration with the support of the Parliament’s one independent and no legitimacy. Labor’s leader Don Dunstan made much of the fact that Labor had won a clear majority of the votes statewide and succeed in getting the good natured Liberal Country Premier Steele Hall to agree to electoral reform. In 1970 the independent crossed the floor (over the location a dam) and with the electoral reform in place Dunstan won the resulting election and the extraordinary decade began!

  8. Sacha says:

    Peter, if the LCL had won that seat and thus gained a clear majority, and if the Independent had also been made Speaker, they could have passed their own electoral districts act. I recall reading that their initial electoral districts act was definitely not one-vote one-value, but which had a country zone, a regional cities zone, and a metro zone (I very possibly stand corrected on this). The effects of this are uncertain, although it couldn’t have been any worse to labor than the then existing two-zonal system (metro and non-metro).

  9. Geoff R says:

    On Millicent see Blewett & Jaensch’s Playford to Dunstan, p. 170. Ballarat was uncontested in 1917 because the Nationalists gave the sitting Labor MP who was on war service a clear run. I think they won the Senate vote however.

  10. There was a fateful close one in WA. In 1971 the Labor candidate won Balga (I think) by four votes thus bringing the John Tonkin govt to power by one seat (Lab 26, Lib-CP 25). Labor was there for a single term in a Liberal stretch from 1959 to 1983. In 1983 the new premier was the bloke who’d won by those four votes: Brian Burke.

  11. Pingback: Andrew Leigh » Blog Archive » The chance your vote will matter is 1 in 4500

Comments are closed.