1987 Australian federal election

The 1987 Australian federal election was held in Australia on 11 July 1987, following the granting of a double dissolution on 5 June by the Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen. Consequently, all 148 seats in the House of Representatives as well as all 76 seats in the Senate were up for election. The incumbent Australian Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, defeated the opposition Liberal Party of Australia, led by John Howard and the National Party of Australia led by Ian Sinclair. This was the first, and to date only, time the Labor Party won a third consecutive election.

1987 Australian federal election

← 1984 11 July 1987 (1987-07-11) 1990 →

All 148 seats in the House of Representatives
75 seats were needed for a majority in the House
All 76 seats in the Senate
Registered10,353,213 Increase 4.90%
Turnout9,715,440 (93.84%)
(Decrease0.35 pp)
  First party Second party
Leader Bob Hawke John Howard
Party Labor Liberal/National coalition
Leader since 8 February 1983 (1983-02-08) 5 September 1985 (1985-09-05)
Leader's seat Wills (Vic.) Bennelong (NSW)
Last election 82 seats 66 seats
Seats won 86 seats 62 seats
Seat change Increase 4 Decrease 4
Popular vote 4,238,663 4,238,978
Percentage 45.90% 45.90%
Swing Decrease 1.65% Increase 0.89%
TPP 50.83% 49.17%
TPP swing Decrease 0.94 Increase 0.94

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

Prime Minister before election

Bob Hawke

Subsequent Prime Minister

Bob Hawke

This was the last federal election before Old Parliament House was decommissioned as the seat of parliament after 61 years. In 1988, it was replaced by today's Parliament House, which sits above its predecessor on Capital Hill.

Future Opposition Leader John Hewson entered parliament at this election.

Since the introduction in the previous election in 1984 of leaders' debates, this was the only election in which there was not at least one leaders' debate due to Hawke's refusal to debate Howard.[1]



The Hawke government had been in power since the general election of 1983, and had been re-elected in the snap election of 1984, although with a decreased majority. Hawke, in partnership with Treasurer Paul Keating, had pursued an ambitiously reformist agenda over the course of his time in office, which included floating the Australian dollar, reducing tariffs on imports and completely reforming the tax system. However, the government's popularity dropped sharply throughout the course of its 1984–87 term, mostly due to a series of blunders such as its failed 'tax summit' (designed to gain support for Keating's proposed consumption tax), and declining terms of trade, which Treasurer Keating argued threatened to reduce Australia to the status of a banana republic unless tough measures were taken to correct the balance of trade.

Meanwhile, for much of the 1984–87 term, the opposition Liberal-National coalition led in the polls, leading to speculation that it could regain office in 1987. However, both coalition parties were also wracked by infighting throughout the parliament. In September 1985, Andrew Peacock, who had led the party to a surprising rebound in the 1984 general election, was replaced as leader of the Liberal party by the then Deputy Leader and Shadow Treasurer John Howard, after a botched effort to remove the latter from the Deputy Leadership and replace him with Queenslander John Moore, resulting in Peacock's resignation. Nonetheless, the party remained divided, as Howard was seen by some Liberals as being too far to the right, and these opponents of the Howard policy agenda rallied to Peacock, who was eventually sacked from the shadow ministry in March 1987, following unfortunate remarks regarding Howard by Peacock to Victorian state opposition leader Jeff Kennett in an infamous car phone conversation.[2]

Moreover, Howard and National Party leader Ian Sinclair faced challenges from the right as well as the left of the coalition, in the form of Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Premier since 1968, Bjelke-Petersen was a hardline conservative who aggressively opposed the "socialist" Hawke Labor government, and believed that he could transfer the style of politics that had served him so well in his native Queensland to the federal stage. Following a decisive electoral victory in Queensland in 1986, the so-called Joh for Canberra campaign began in earnest, supported by much of the Queensland business establishment (the infamous "white shoe brigade"), with Bjelke-Petersen announcing that he intended to run for the Prime Ministership on 1 January 1987. At the end of February 1987, the Queensland National Party decided to withdraw its twelve federal members of parliament from the Coalition, and demanded that federal National Party leader Ian Sinclair also withdraw because of "basic differences in taxation and other philosophies and policies" between the Liberal and National parties.[3] Within the Queensland National Party, the party president Sir Robert Sparkes enforced support for Bjelke-Petersen, making practical opposition within the Queensland ranks unlikely.[4] The Coalition formally split in early May, with the National Party voting to break the federal coalition, and Ian Sinclair looking increasingly impotent and unable to ensure the loyalty of National Party members. However, it was at this point that Bob Sparkes reneged on his loyalty to Bjelke-Petersen and withdrew from the campaign.[5] With his pool of supporters steadily decreasing, the likelihood of an effective challenge to the federal Coalition from Bjelke-Petersen began to collapse. When the election was called on 27 May, Bjelke-Petersen was in the United States, and quickly decided to withdraw from his bid for federal power. However, the federal coalition had been broken, and Howard's credibility as a challenger to the Hawke government had been severely damaged.[6]

Voting intention



Date Brand Primary vote
11 July 1987 election 45.90% 45.90% 6.00% 2.18%
9 July 1987 Newspoll 48.5% 43% 6.5% 2%
7 June 1987 Newspoll 53% 41% 4% 2%
3 May 1987 Newspoll 46% 48% 4% 2%
21 September 1986 Newspoll 40% 50% 9% 1%
1 December 1985 Newspoll 49% 42% 8% 1%
18 December 1984 election 47.55% 45.01% 5.45% 1.99%



The 1987 federal election was called by Prime Minister Hawke six months early, to capitalise on the aforementioned disunity in the opposition. The nominal trigger for the double dissolution was the rejection of legislation for the Australia Card by the Senate, but that did not figure prominently in the campaign, and Labor Senate Leader John Button even burst into laughter when referring to it in his speech announcing the election. Caught off guard by the early election, the opposition quickly ran into difficulties when the funding for its flagship tax cut proposals was revealed to have been miscalculated by some $540 million (at the time), a mistake revealed by the Labor party and conceded by Howard.[8] Furthermore, although the Joh for Canberra push had been abandoned, the associated schism between the Nationals and Liberals led to several three-cornered contests, and the National Party ran independent Senate tickets in every state except New South Wales.[9]

Labor naturally chose to campaign strongly on the disunity amongst the opposition parties, contrasting it with the relative unity of purpose of the Labor Government. However, aside from those issues, the 1987 campaign failed to generate great excitement in the electorate, and the opposition was viewed as unlikely, particularly in view of the recent infighting, to be able to remove the Labor party from power. That view was strengthened by much of the polling during the campaign, which generally showed Labor with a commanding lead.[10] The election was the last one in which the Liberals and Nationals competed directly against each other in a federal election.



House of Representatives results

Government (86)
  Labor (86)

Opposition (62)
  Liberal (43)
  National (19)
House of Reps (IRV) — 1987–90 – Turnout 93.84% (CV) — Informal 4.94%
Party Votes % Swing Seats Change
    Liberal 3,169,061 34.32 +0.26 43   1
  National 1,048,249 11.35 +0.72 19   2
  Country Liberal 21,668 0.23 −0.09 0   1
Liberal/National Coalition 4,238,978 45.90 +0.89 62   4
  Labor 4,238,663 45.90 −1.65 86   4
  Democrats 557,262 6.00 +0.55
  Others 200,183 2.18
Total 9,235,086 148
Two-party-preferred vote
  Labor 4,693,099 50.83 −0.94 86   4
  Liberal/National coalition 4,540,009 49.17 +0.94 62   4
Invalid/blank votes 480,354 4.9 –1.9
Turnout 9,715,440 93.8
Registered voters 10,353,229
Source: Federal Election Results 1949-1993
Popular vote
Two-party-preferred vote
Parliament seats

Senate results

Government (32)
  Labor (32)

Opposition (34)
  Liberal (28)
  National (5)
  CLP (1)

Crossbench (10)
  Democrats (7)
  NDP (1)
  Independent (2)
Senate (STV GV) — 1987–90 – Turnout 93.84% (CV) — Informal 3.54%
Party Votes % Swing Seats won Seats held Change
    Liberal 1,965,180 20.97 +0.38 23 27  
  Liberal–National joint ticket 1,289,888 13.76 +1.05 5 N/A N/A
  National[a] 664,394 7.09 +1.16 6 6   1
  Country Liberal 19,970 0.21 −0.10 1 1  
Liberal/National Coalition 3,939,432 42.04 +2.50 34 34   1
  Labor 4,013,860 42.83 +0.66 32 32   2
  Democrats 794,107 8.47 +0.85 7 7  
  Nuclear Disarmament[b] 102,480 1.09 −6.14 1 1  
  Vallentine Peace Group[b] 40,048 0.43 +0.43 1 1   1
  Harradine Group 37,037 0.40 +0.14 1 1  
  Others 444,716 4.75
Total 9,371,681     76 76
Invalid/blank votes 394,891 4.0 –2.8
Turnout 9,766,571 90.5
Registered voters 10,353,213
Source: Federal Election Results 1949-1993
  • As this was a double-dissolution election, all Senate seats were contested.
  • This was the first election in which the AEC conducted a special recount (under 1983 legislation) for the purpose of allocating three- and six-year senate terms. The recount results were not used.

Seats changing hands

Seat Pre-1987 Swing Post-1987
Party Member Margin Margin Member Party
Chisholm, Vic   Labor Helen Mayer 0.2 0.9 0.7 Michael Wooldridge Liberal  
Denison, Tas   Liberal Michael Hodgman 1.0 4.8 3.8 Duncan Kerr Labor  
Fisher, Qld   National Peter Slipper 2.3 2.8 0.5 Michael Lavarch Labor  
Forde, Qld   Liberal David Watson 0.0 1.0 1.0 Mary Crawford Labor  
Hinkler, Qld   National Bryan Conquest 0.2 1.3 1.1 Brian Courtice Labor  
Lowe, NSW   Labor Michael Maher 2.2 3.8 1.6 Bob Woods Liberal  
Northern Territory, NT   Country Liberal Paul Everingham 1.4 3.6 2.2 Warren Snowdon Labor  
Petrie, Qld   Liberal John Hodges 0.6 2.0 1.4 Gary Johns Labor  
  • Members listed in italics did not contest their seat at this election.



Hawke led Labor to a record third successive term in government, despite finishing slightly behind the Coalition in the first-preference vote (the first time that a party had won an election in spite of this since 1969), and suffering a swing of some 0.9% to the Coalition in the two-party-preferred vote. Nonetheless, Labor's result of 86 seats was the party's highest ever (the total number of seats was expanded by 23 in 1984), and the party made particularly strong gains in Bjelke-Petersen's native Queensland, gaining four seats to bring their Queensland tally to 13 of 24 seats. The Liberals suffered a net loss of two seats, primarily due to losses in Queensland, although they did make small gains in Howard's native New South Wales and in Victoria. The federal National Party also suffered a net loss of two seats, failing to expand upon its traditional rural base and hampered by disunity within its ranks.

The Gallagher Index result: 10.57

This was the most recent election in which every seat in the House of Representatives was won by either Labor or the Coalition. Following the election, John Howard stayed on as leader of the Liberal Party, and would eventually become Prime Minister in 1996. However, the experience of the 1987 campaign is said to have been the origin of his oft-repeated remark that, in politics, "disunity is death". Meanwhile, Hawke would go on to win a fourth-consecutive election for the Labor party, but was eventually replaced as Labor leader and Prime Minister by Paul Keating in 1991.

See also



  1. ^ The National includes the NT Nationals, consistent with the Parliamentary Library results,[11] however the totals in Psephos: Adam Carr's Electoral Archive do not include the NT Nationals.[12]
  2. ^ a b Jo Vallentine had been elected in 1984 as a Nuclear Disarmament Party member, but resigned in 1985, serving out the remainder of her term as an independent.


  1. ^ McIlroy, Tom (12 May 2016). "Federal election 2016: do leader debates really make a difference in Australian elections?". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  2. ^ Kennett-Peacock Car Phone Conversation. Retrieved 5 May 2006.
  3. ^ Adams (1987), p. 253
  4. ^ Davey (2010), p. 231
  5. ^ Walter (1990), p. 318
  6. ^ Rydon (1987), p. 365
  7. ^ "Federal Newspoll Archive - Infogram". infogram.com. Retrieved 8 April 2023.
  8. ^ The documentary Liberal Rule: The Politics That Changed Australia
  9. ^ Davey (2010), p. 236
  10. ^ "Newspoll Archive". Archived from the original on 18 December 2018. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  11. ^ "Federal Election Results 1949-1993" (PDF). Parliament of Australia. Retrieved 12 July 2017.
  12. ^ "1987 Senate". Psephos Adam Carr's Election Archive. Retrieved 26 June 2022.


  • Adams, David (1987). "Political Review". Australian Quarterly. 59 (2): 245–255. doi:10.2307/20635436. JSTOR 20635436.
  • Davey, Paul (2010). Ninety Not Out: The Nationals 1920–2010. Sydney: University of NSW Press.
  • Rydon, Joan (1987). "The Federal Elections of 1987 and their Absurdities". The Australian Quarterly. 59 (3/4): 357–365. doi:10.2307/20635449. JSTOR 20635449.
  • Walter, James (1990). "Johannes Bjelke-Petersen". In Dennis Murphy, Roger Joyce & Margaret Cribb (ed.). Premiers of Queensland. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press. pp. 495–529.

Further reading