Seventy years ago today Australians voted in a federal election, the result of which was to profoundly reshape the political and social landscape of Australia.
The election of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition also marked the political resurrection of Robert Menzies, forced out of office by his own party after two years as prime minister in 1941.
The triumph of Menzies in 1949 - at a time when there were still doubters in his own ranks, who until recently had peddled the slogan "you'll never win with Menzies" - was to be repeated again and again as he strung together a series of election victories that kept him in office until 1966 when he retired - the only prime minister to date to have unambiguously chosen the time and circumstance of his departure. His combined tenure in office of 18 years is unlikely to be emulated.
With Labor enjoying its longest term in office, and with a Labor government having been re-elected for the first time in 1946, it might have gone into the 1949 elections with a degree of confidence based on a substantial record of achievement. But with the mood of the nation uncertain, and with the peculiar circumstances of elections being fought for the first time for a greatly enlarged Parliament - the House of Representatives up to 123 from 75 and the Senate up to 60 from 36 - a great many unknowns clouded the horizon.
The uncertainty was magnified by a range of post-war concerns and expectations that the expansionary 1949 budget brought into sharp focus. The nation was still war-weary, tired of austerity and impatient with rationing and controls; people wanted to spend their accumulated savings on the new household goods starting to appear in stores, and the taxation burden was resented. Further, rising inflation was a problem, with the Consumer Price Index rising by more than 10 per cent in 1949. It was little wonder Menzies' pledges to end rationing and "put value back in the pound" fell on such eagerly receptive ears.
Labor's enemies - notably the banks and most big business, but also the doctors who objected to subsidised medical care - were organising like never before; in all, they commanded a campaign war chest estimated at ten times that of Labor. Prominent Catholics like Archbishop Duhig in Brisbane also campaigned against the government, preaching that a vote for the "socialist" ALP was inconsistent with Catholic doctrines.
The issues of bank nationalisation (which had not been been handled well by prime minister Ben Chifley) and medical benefits were not in themselves fatal flaws - indeed, they enjoyed strong support in Labor's heartland - but the cumulative effect in tandem with the communist scare acted as a deterrent to many lower middle-class, swinging voters who most likely had voted ALP in 1943 and 1946. The association of Labor with wartime rationing and controls contrasted sharply with the image of the young, energetic ex-servicemen promoted by the Liberal Party, who preached the virtues of free enterprise.
Chifley told the ALP federal executive earlier in 1949 that he intended to go to the people on his record, rather than on rash promises, saying he did not believe in bribing the voters. Not all in his party agreed, arguing that the enthusiasm and interest of the electorate needed to be stirred. It was a failing of Chifley, wrote his biographer L. F. Crisp, to place "too sanguine a faith in the political and economic grasp, the rationality and the dispassionate public spirit of at least a crucial part of the electorate".
With election day arriving, expectations of a Labor defeat permeated the press coverage. The Sydney Morning Herald, which had become stridently anti-Labor, reported opposition confidence under the headline "Government defeat is predicted". The report quoted Labor sources admitting the government throughout the campaign had "been having an uphill fight and that there are indications of a loss of popularity by the government in marginal seats". Summing up the campaign, the Herald noted that Labor "on the whole, stands by its record of government in a time of prosperity", whereas the opposition had "set out to convince the people that the time has come to stop the tide of socialisation".
Counting after the polls closed quickly confirmed that the Chifley government been soundly defeated, with only the size of the majority of the incoming Menzies government in doubt. By Monday morning it was clear that the Coalition had picked up 66 seats, eventually extending to 74.
The real tragedy for Labor - which had governed competently and responsibly since 1941 - was not yet apparent. Stirring currents within the party, held in check by the necessary discipline of government, were soon to erupt, largely over the issue of communist influence in the unions.
Chifley's death in 1951 robbed the party of stabilising leadership, with the erratic Bert Evatt elected leader, and the party spiralling towards a disastrous split in the mid-1950s as the largely Catholic right wing broke away to form the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP), whose preferences at every election from 1955 were instrumental in ensuring defeat for the ALP.
It was a dark time for Labor. In 1987, I interviewed the last surviving member of the Chifley cabinet, Nelson Lemmon. As minister of works, he had been the driving political force behind the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity scheme.
Lemmon, who lost his West Australian seat in the 1949 election, was later persuaded to return to Parliament, winning the Sydney-based seat of St George in 1954.
"Silliest thing I ever did," said Lemmon, who had been seen as a potential leader, and was being urged by the Victorian branch to challenge Evatt.
"Under 'Chif' we had a united team and a sense of camaraderie, but when I went back there in 1954, it had all gone. No one trusted anyone any more. It was just so awful."
Nelson Lemmon died in 1989. An entire generation would pass before Labor once again returned to office in 1972 under Gough Whitlam, and only three members from the caucus of 1949 would still be in Parliament: Fred Daly, Kim Beazley Sr. and Senator Justin O'Byrne.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is a political historian. A revised edition of his book on prime ministers, The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits in Australia, was published in October.