ID 0761

Commonwealth Parliament, Senate election

Election of 10 December 1949


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General election for the Senate
Commonwealth of Australia
Date of election
10 December 1949
Type of Senate election
Half Senate (enlarged) with House of Representatives

Government in office at Senate election

Prime Minister in office at date of Senate election. (check notes to Senate national summary table to see if change of Prime Minister since previous election)
Prime Minister's party affiliation
Australian Labor Party
Government majority in Senate at date of election
Yes
Change of government
Yes
Government majority in new Senate
No
If coalition, coalition partner(s)

Senate enrolment and voting

Total number of voters on the roll
4,895,227
Total ballots cast (may differ from number of votes in multiple voting systems)
4,697,800
Turnout (rate of voting in contested seats)
95.97%
Total valid votes
4,192,525
Rate of informal (invalid) voting
10.76%

Electoral composition of the Senate for this election

Total number of seats in the Senate
60
Total number of seats for each state
10
Number of seats for each territory
Seats to be filled at this Senate election
42
Casual vacancies/additional seats included in seats to be filled
24
Electoral System
Adult franchise at 21 years; multimember districts; proportional representation by the single transferable vote method (STV); compulsory preferences; compulsory voting

Senate votes and seats won, and seats held, national summary

Display Chart

Election held on 10 December 1949
Criteria for the inclusion of parties in this table are set out in the Glossary under 'listed party'

* to view table drag left or right.
Party Name First preference vote n First preference vote share % Change from previous election % Seats won by ticket n Seats won by ticket % Seats won by party n Seats won by party % Seats held by party n Seats held by party %
Australian Labor Party   1,881,956  44.89  -7.18  19  45.24  19  45.24  34  56.67 
Liberal Party - Country Party (joint ticket)  1,871,849  44.65  +6.53  16  38.10         
Liberal Party  241,598  5.76  +0.56  16.67  19  45.24  21  35.00 
Communist Party   87,958  2.10           
Country Party            9.52  8.33 
Votes for other than listed parties 109,164 2.60 -2.01             
Totals 4,192,525  100.00    42  100.00  42  100.00  60  100.00 


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* Party did not contest previous election or did not meet criteria for listing, or contested previous election under a different party name.

Notes

This election in 1949 was the first for the enlarged Senate (see notes, below). An election for half the membership of the enlarged Senate was held at the same time as a general election for the House of Representatives (also enlarged); see terms of senators. The 1949 House of Representatives election results can be seen here.

In the table above, see the Glossary distinctions between Seats won by ticket and Seats won by party, and between Seats won by party and Seats held by party.

Enlarged Senate: The number of members in Australia's national parliament is linked to the membership of the Senate. Section 24 of the Commonwealth Constitution specifies that the number of members of the House of Representatives '... shall be as nearly as practicable twice the number of the senators.' This means that the membership of the House of Representatives cannot be increased without increasing the membership of the Senate.

By 1948, there was broad agreement that, with base of 72 members, the small size of the House of Representatives put constraints on the effectiveness of representation and parliamentary government on Australia's national administration. What had been an appropriate membership for an Australian population of under 4 million in 1901 was no longer adequate for close to double this number in 1948 at a time when the scope of Commonwealth government activities had greatly increased; for a summary of this position, see L F Crisp, The Parliamentary Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1st edition, pp 142-143 (Adelaide: Longmans, Green; Wakefield Press, 1949).

Notwithstanding some resistance to increasing the membership of the Senate, the Representation Act 1948 (No.16 of 1948) was passed increasing the membership of the Senate from 36 to 60 members, an increase from 6 to 10 senators from each state; for comments critical of this move and the motivations of the government, see H M Storey, 'Canberra's New Parliament', The Australian Quarterly, 20 (3) September 1948: 21-36).

As a consequence of the change, the 1949 election required the election of 7 senators from each state (3 existing Senate vacancies in each state and an additional 4 vacancies to bring each state delegation of senators plus the three continuing senators to 10).

Regular half Senate elections from 1951 until the Senate was enlarged again in 1984 would be for 5 senators from each state (not including any casual vacancies until the method for fill such vacancies was changed by constitutional amendment in 1977). As a consequence of section 24 of the Constitution, the base membership of the House of Representatives increased from 72 to 120 for the 1949 House of Representatives election.

Electoral System: The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1948 (No.17 of 1948) changed the electoral system for the Senate from preferential block voting to proportional representation by the single transferable vote (STV) method. This was a substantial change from a system that often resulted in highly disproportionate results to one which aimed to produce a close relationship between the distribution of votes in the electorate and the share of seats in the Senate; for a discussion of this change, note David M Farrell and Ian McAllister, The Australian Electoral System: Origins, Variations and Consequences, especially pp 40-43 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006, ISBN 08868408581).

While there had been a long history of proposals for the adoption of proportional representation for Senate elections, one explanation for its adoption in 1948 was the need to avoid the dramatic changes to the composition of the Senate which had been prompted by block preferential voting, a result which could be exacerbated by an increase in the membership of the Senate under the existing electoral system. There was also a short term partisan benefit for the Labor government by adopting promportional representation for the half-Senate election in 1949 because it would make it likely that the Labor Party would retain a majority of seats in the Senate when the new senators took their seats in July 1950 (see terms of senators).

Whatever the reasons for its adoption, proportional representation was to have a profound effect on the role of the Senate in the Australian parliamentary process and on the structure of the federal party system; see Bach, ch.3 (online in 'References', below).

Ballot design: The move to proportional representation for Senate elections did not require any change in the design of ballot papers. Both preferential block voting and proportional representation by the single transferable vote (STV) method required a voter to rank the individual candidates on the ballot in the order of the voter's choice. The electoral systems differed in the way the ranked order of candidates on each ballot was counted (see references in previous notes).

This meant that changes made to Senate ballot papers in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1940 (No.19 of 1940) continued to apply. Section 7 of the 1940 Electoral Act enabled candidates who ran in a party grouping on the ballot paper to agree on the order in which their names would be ranked in the group rather than an alphabetical listing (although no party labels were attached to the groups). Those candidates who ran as Independents were listed in an unmarked group at the end of the ballot paper.

Similarly, under section 17(b) of the 1940 Act, the placing of the groups was decided by lot organized by the Commonwealth Electoral Officer in each state. Section 17(c) applied the same process to decide the order of any Independent candidates within their unmarked group. In addition, the groups of candidates were arranged horizontally on the ballot paper rather than vertically so that the ballot followed the model set out in Form E in the Act.

Voting continued to be compulsory and voters were required to rank all candidates on the ballot paper for their votes to be valid. The increase in the membership of the Senate and the likely increase in the number of candidates on the ballot paper, coupled with the absence of party labels for the party groupings presented voters with a challenging task. The political parties aimed to remedy this by issuing how-to-vote cards to aid their supporters to vote for their chosen party and to encourage them to rank party candidates in the party preferred order.

Parties: At this federal election in 1949, a resurgent Liberal Party under the leadership of Menzies joined with the Country Party to win a comfortable majority of seats in the House of Representatives to defeat the Australian Labor Party government under Prime Minister Chifley. Menzies was commissioned to form a Liberal Party and Country Party coalition government on 19 December 1949.

The 1949 half-Senate election was the first to be held with proportional representation (see notes above) and the results fulfilled the expectation that, at the national level, even with the variation in the populations of the six states, there would be a much closer relationship between the votes cast and the seats won than under the previous block preferential electoral system: the Labor Party won 45.2 percent of the Senate seats with 44.6 percent of the first preference votes, the Liberal Party and the Country Party combined won 54.8 percent of the seats with 50.5 percent of the first preference votes.

Also as expected, the Labor Party's continuing 15 senators elected in 1946 under the previous electoral system permitted the Labor Party to maintain a majority of four seats on the floor of the Senate when the new senators took their seats on 1 July 1950 (see terms of senators).

Joint tickets: In all four states with established Country Parties (New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia), the Liberal Party ran joint tickets with the Country Party and elected 4 of the 7 available Senate seats in each state, dividing the seats in each of these states three to the Liberal Party and one to the Country Party. Only in South Australia did the Labor Party win 4 Senate seats; (in South Australia the state branch of the federal Liberal Party preserved the name Liberal and Country League that it had used for state and some federal elections since 1933).

Other parties and informal (invalid) vote: Fewer than 5 percent of the voters gave first preference votes to other than the government or opposition parties, with the largest minor party being the Communist Party which gained 2.1 percent of the vote. The rate of informal (invalid) voting at 10.8 percent of the votes cast was 2.7 percent higher than in 1946 election that had used the same ballot format but with fewer candidates to rank than in 1949 (see notes, above).

References: For a detailed study of the 1949 federal election with commentary on various explanations for the results, see David Lee, 'The 1949 Federal Election: A Reinterpretation', Australian Journal of Political Science, 29 (3) November 1994: 501-519; a summary of party attitudes in the Commonwealth Parliament over the period leading up to the 1949 election can be found in Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, pp 196-203, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1963, ISBN 522837328).

The development of the Liberal Party during this period is covered in Graeme Starr, The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History, ch.3 (Richmond, Victoria: Drummond/Heinemann, 1980 ISBN 0858592231); the wider context is provided in Scott Prasser, J R Nethercote and John Warhurst (editors), The Menzies Era, (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995 ISBN 0868066541). An authoritative account of politics within the Australian Labor Party during this period is provided in Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1970, ISBN 0701516755).

For general Senate reference, see: J.R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, 5th edition (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1976); a more recent version is online here [accessed 20 May 2020]; and Stanley Bach, Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice (Canberra: Department of the Senate, 2003), online here [accessed 21 May 2020].

Sources

Colin A Hughes and B D Graham, A Handbook of Australian Government and Politics 1890-1964, Canberra; Australian National University Press, 1968 (SBN 708102700); Gerard Newman, Federal Election Results 1949-2001, Canberra: Commonwealth Parliament, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Information and Research Services, Research Paper 9 2001-02, 2002 (ISSN 1328 7478).



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