1972 Australian federal election

The 1972 Australian federal election was held in Australia on 2 December 1972. All 125 seats in the House of Representatives were up for election, as well as a single Senate seat in Queensland. The incumbent Liberal–Country coalition government, led by Prime Minister William McMahon, was defeated by the opposition Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam. Labor's victory ended 23 years of successive Coalition governments that began in 1949 and started the three-year Whitlam Labor Government.

1972 Australian federal election

← 1969 2 December 1972 1974 →

All 125 seats of the House of Representatives
63 seats were needed for a majority
Registered7,073,930 Increase 7.08%
Turnout6,747,244 (95.38%)
(Increase0.41 pp)
  First party Second party
Leader Gough Whitlam William McMahon
Party Labor Liberal/Country coalition
Leader since 8 February 1967 10 March 1971
Leader's seat Werriwa (NSW) Lowe (NSW)
Last election 59 seats 66 seats
Seats won 67 seats 58 seats
Seat change Increase8 Decrease8
Popular vote 3,273,549 2,737,911
Percentage 49.58% 41.48%
Swing Increase2.64 Decrease1.84
TPP 52.7% 47.3%
TPP swing Increase2.50 Decrease2.50

Results by division for the House of Representatives, shaded by winning party's margin of victory.

Prime Minister before election

William McMahon
Liberal/Country coalition

Subsequent Prime Minister

Gough Whitlam

Whitlam became the first Labor leader after World War II to lead the party to victory from opposition before Bob Hawke in 1983, Kevin Rudd in 2007 and Anthony Albanese in 2022.



The 1972 election campaign dealt with a combination of Vietnam and domestic policy issues, and the role of the federal government in resolving these issues. The Coalition of the Liberal and Country parties had been in government for 23 years. Successive Coalition governments promoted conservative economics, trade, and defence. However, Australian economic prosperity during the post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s led to the emergence of a range of "quality of life" issues regarding urban development, education, and healthcare. By 1972 these "quality of life" issues came to represent a major political problem for the coalition parties. Traditionally all of these areas had been handled by the state governments, and the Coalition had always asserted the importance of states rights, a view backed by Liberal state premiers like Robert Askin and Henry Bolte. Between 1966 and 1972, Labor leader Gough Whitlam developed policies designed to deal with the problems of urban and regional development using the financial powers granted to the federal government under the Australian Constitution. As Whitlam put it, Labor focused on "cities, schools and hospitals", and these issues were electorally appealing especially to the young and growing baby boomer generation living in the outer suburbs of the major cities.

By contrast, Coalition policies of conservative economic management, increasing trade, and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War disengaged a significant number of Australian voters. Australian involvement in the Vietnam War was initially popular. However, protests grew as the consequences of the war became apparent and the likelihood of a US-led victory diminished. A major part of the protests were directed at conscripting Australians to fight in the war. Liberal policies on Vietnam focused on the need to contain the spread of communism, but the gradual US and Australian troop withdrawal undermined this position. In 1971, Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam visited China. The Coalition heavily criticised the visit, but said criticism soon backfired and became an embarrassment when U.S. President Richard Nixon announced he would visit China the following year.

Whitlam giving Labor's policy speech at the Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney

Finally, the incumbent Prime Minister William McMahon was no match for Whitlam, a witty and powerful orator. McMahon's position was precarious to begin with, for he had only emerged as Liberal Leader after a prolonged period of turmoil following the Coalition's unexpectedly poor showing at the half-Senate election held in 1970, and various state elections. In March 1971, Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser resigned from the ministry and declared that Prime Minister John Gorton was "unfit to hold the great office of Prime Minister". Gorton swiftly called for a vote of confidence in his leadership, which resulted in a 33-33 tie. Gorton could have continued with the result, but stated "Well, that is not a vote of confidence, so the party will have to elect a new leader.",[1] and McMahon won the ensuing leadership contest against Billy Snedden. This turmoil was only further compounded by Gorton immediately being elected as McMahon's deputy; he was ultimately sacked by McMahon for disloyalty in August 1971. These changes all made the Coalition appear weak and divided, and consumed in internal struggles.

McMahon was further weakened by concerns about inflation and negative press coverage. For example, Rupert Murdoch and his newspaper The Australian supported the ALP. The ALP ran a strong campaign under the famous slogan It's Time – a slogan which, coupled with its progressive policy programme, gave it great momentum within the electorate after 23 years of Conservative rule.[2]

The Coalition government strongly opposed the opening of full diplomatic relationship with Beijing during Mao Zedong's regime.[3]



House of Representatives

House of Reps (IRV) — 1972–74—Turnout 95.38% (CV) — Informal 2.17%
Party Votes % Swing Seats Change
  Labor 3,273,549 49.59 +2.64 67 +8
  Liberal–Country Coalition 2,737,911 41.48 –1.84 58 –8
  Liberal  2,115,085 32.04 –2.73 38 –8
  Country  622,826 9.44 +0.88 20 0
  Democratic Labor 346,415 5.25 –0.77 0 0
  Australia 159,916 2.42 +1.54 0 0
  Defence of Government Schools 9,703 0.15 +0.15 0 0
  Communist 8,105 0.12 +0.04 0 0
  National Socialist 1,161 0.02 +0.02 0 0
  Socialist 1,062 0.02 +0.02 0 0
  Independents 63,228 0.96 –1.57 0 0
  Total 6,601,050     125
Two-party-preferred (estimated)
  Labor Win 52.70 +2.50 67 +8
  Liberal–Country coalition   47.30 −2.50 58 −8
Popular vote
Two-party-preferred vote
Parliament seats



A special Senate election was held in Queensland to replace Liberal senator Annabelle Rankin, who resigned in 1971.[4] Neville Bonner, who had been appointed to fill the casual vacancy by the Queensland Parliament, won the Senate position – the first Indigenous Australian elected to parliament. The election was held at the time of the House of Representatives election as per Section 15 of the Constitution.

Otherwise, no Senate election was held. Since then, every Australian federal election has included a half or full Senate election.

Seats changing hands

Seat Pre-1972 Swing Post-1972
Party Member Margin Margin Member Party
Bendigo, Vic   Labor David Kennedy 3.0 3.2 0.2 John Bourchier Liberal  
Casey, Vic   Liberal Peter Howson 5.0 7.2 2.2 Race Mathews Labor  
Cook, NSW   Liberal Don Dobie 2.8 3.5 0.7 Ray Thorburn Labor  
Darling Downs, Qld   Liberal Reginald Swartz N/A 3.4 11.3 Tom McVeigh Country  
Denison, Tas   Liberal Robert Solomon 2.6 7.2 4.6 John Coates Labor  
Diamond Valley, Vic   Liberal Neil Brown 6.1 7.7 1.6 David McKenzie Labor  
Evans, NSW   Liberal Malcolm Mackay 1.2 3.9 2.7 Allan Mulder Labor  
Forrest, WA   Labor Frank Kirwan 1.1 4.7 3.6 Peter Drummond Liberal  
Holt, Vic   Liberal Len Reid 3.5 7.9 4.4 Max Oldmeadow Labor  
Hume, NSW   Country Ian Pettitt 1.0 2.9 1.9 Frank Olley Labor  
La Trobe, Vic   Liberal John Jess 5.2 10.2 5.0 Tony Lamb Labor  
Lilley, Qld   Liberal Kevin Cairns 1.7 1.7 0.0 Frank Doyle Labor  
Macarthur, NSW   Liberal Jeff Bate 3.8 6.0 2.2 John Kerin Labor  
McMillan, Vic   Liberal Alex Buchanan N/A 2.9 2.4 Arthur Hewson Country  
McPherson, Qld   Country Charles Barnes N/A 6.5 4.7 Eric Robinson Liberal  
Mitchell, NSW   Liberal Les Irwin 2.5 3.7 1.2 Alfred Ashley-Brown Labor  
Phillip, NSW   Liberal William Aston 0.4 4.1 3.7 Joe Riordan Labor  
Stirling, WA   Labor Harry Webb 5.5 8.4 2.9 Ian Viner Liberal  
Sturt, SA   Labor Norm Foster 0.5 2.2 2.7 Ian Wilson Liberal  
  • †Jeff Bate and Alex Buchanan contested their seats as independent candidates.


Supporters of McMahon hold up his placards at a rally during the election.

The 1972 election ended 23 years of Liberal-Country rule, the longest unbroken run in government in Australian history. It is also unusual as Whitlam only scraped into office with a thin majority of nine seats; typically, elections that produce a change of government in Australia take the form of landslides (as in the elections of 1949, 1975, 1983, 1996, 2007 or 2013, for example). The comparatively small size of Whitlam's win is partly explained by his strong performance at the previous election in 1969, where he achieved a 7.1% swing and gained 18 seats after Labor had been reduced to 41 of 124 seats and a 43.1% two-party vote in its landslide defeat in 1966.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam quickly switched the diplomatic recognition from Republic of China (Taiwan) to People's Republic of China a few days before Christmas Day under the one-China policy. The new ruling Labor Party sought to ease the complicated tension between Australia and China[5]

The new Labor Government of Gough Whitlam was eager to make long-planned reforms, although it struggled against a lack of experience in its cabinet and the onset of the 1973 oil crisis and 1973–75 recession. In addition, the Senate was hostile to Whitlam, with the Coalition and Democratic Labor Parties holding more seats than the ALP, as the term of the Senate at the time was 1971 to 1974. This in particular would make governing difficult, and led to the early double dissolution election of 1974.

See also





  1. ^ Brown, Neil (1993). On the Other Hand ... Sketches and Reflections from Political Life. The Popular Press. p. 59. ISBN 0646151207.
  2. ^ Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. pp. 234–238. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9.
  3. ^ Thomas, Nicholas (2004). Re-Orienting Australia-China Relations: 1972 to the Present.
  4. ^ "Glossary of Election Terms – Federal Election 2007". ABC. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  5. ^ Trumbull, Robert (23 December 1972). "AUSTRALIA GRANTS CHINA RECOGNITION". NY Times.