Long history of interest in Eden-Monaro voting patterns
by ROSS FITZGERALD and STEPHEN HOLT
Serious interest in the voting patterns of Eden-Monaro long predates next Saturday’s by-election. It goes back to the mid-1950s when the study of voting outcomes was starting to take off as a field of research in Australia.
In 1954 Professor Leicester Webb from the Australian National University in Canberra published a study of the failed 1951 referendum campaign to legalise the banning of the Communist Party. In the same year Webb’s colleague Joan Rydon together with Henry Mayer from Sydney University published a study of the 1953 by-election in the federal seat of Gwydir.
A study of election results in the NSW federal seat of Eden-Monaro, undertaken in 1955-56, was the third cab off the rank in this new academic genre.
Then as now, Eden-Monaro had complex regional, economic and social components. But its proximity to Canberra meant the task of studying and writing about it at the ANU was relatively easy.
In the 1950s Eden-Monaro wan’t a bellwether seat regularly electing a candidate from the party that won the federal poll. Robert Menzies dominated federal politics in the 1950s, but throughout the entire decade Labor MP Allan Fraser represented it. Fraser’s status as an embattled outsider was magnified because he often had issues with Labor’s erratic federal leader Dr HV Evatt.
Eden-Monaro in the mid 1950s was worth studying and it became the focus of ANU academics Don Rawson and Susan Holtzinger.
Rawson was a researcher concentrating on the modern Australian labour movement. Holtzinger, a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, had won a Rotary International Scholarship which enabled her to study for a year in Canberra. Her research topic was the Liberal Party.
And, as luck would have it, 1955 was a bumper year for Australia’s politics buffs.
In a climate of anti-communism the Labor Party underwent a serious schism centred on Victoria. At the same time, a Royal Commission presented its report into foreign espionage following the defection in 1954 of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov from the Soviet Embassy.
At the end of 1955, Menzies capitalised on this tension by calling and easily winning a snap election.
The Holtzinger-Rawson team was tasked with surveying all this action in Eden-Monaro.
Its bellwether status was a thing of the future but some things do stay the same – while Federal and state politics usually operate in separate spheres there is always the possibility of unexpected interaction.
For a time, the scenario for this year’s by-election included the possibility of two prominent state MPs eyeing a move to federal parliament: the Nationals’ John Barilaro, the Deputy Premier of New South Wales and state MP for Monaro; and Liberal Andrew Constance, the state’s Minister for Transport and Roads and state MP for Bega.
Back in 1955 overlapping took the form of a bunching up of election campaigns. Menzies called his snap federal election for December 10. A regular New South Wales’ triennial state election was due on March 3, 1956. Party volunteers in affected areas no sooner wrapped up one campaign than they were roped into another.
The response at the ANU was to conduct a survey of federal electioneering in Eden-Monaro and also in the three NSW state electorates it then encompassed (South Coast, Monaro and Goulburn).
The team studied the campaign by tracking newspaper coverage and obtaining general membership data from party officials. During the week which preceded polling day both federally and in NSW they interviewed 200 voters in the city of Queanbeyan.
Rawson covered the Labor side and Holtzinger the Liberals. No thought was given to looking closely at the Country Party (now the National Party) because the federal seat of Eden-Monaro has never been represented by it, as Barilaro recently came to understand.
At the December 10 federal poll bickering between Liberal and Labor at the national level had little overall impact on Eden-Monaro, and in any case the disastrous effects of the Labor split were far more severe in Victoria. Indeed Allan Fraser was returned with an improved margin. The status quo prevailed when the state election was held. All three incumbents in the state seats covered by Eden-Monaro (two Labor and one Liberal) were returned.
Rawson and Holtzinger’s research indicated that the “general record” of the Menzies government plus concern with the level of social service payments jostled with foreign policy and national security concerns for voters’ immediate attention.
They also concluded that hardly anyone in the seat voted for, let alone joined, the Liberal or Labor parties out of a wish to influence detailed public policy outcomes. The two major parties stumbled along, buffeted by diverse and changing circumstances and subjected to the gusty force of conflicting personalities.
Two years later the research pair published a book, ‘Politics in Eden-Monaro: The Personalities and The Campaigns’ detailing their findings and putting the now crucial seat on the national map.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian and researcher. In 2010, Fitzgerald and Holt published ‘Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman Par Excellence’, which was short-listed for the National Biography Award.