Federal elections were held in Australia on 2 December 1972. All 125 seats in the House of Representatives were up for election. The Liberal Party of Australia had been in power since 1949, under Prime Minister of Australia William McMahon since March 1971 with coalition partner the Country Party led by Doug Anthony, but were defeated by the Australian Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam.
|Australian Labor Party||3,273,549||49.59||+2.64||67||+8|
|Liberal Party of Australia||2,115,085||32.04||−2.73||38||−8|
|Democratic Labor Party||346,415||5.25||−0.77||0||0|
|Australian Labor Party||WIN||52.70||+2.50||67||+8|
See Australian Senate election, 1970 for Senate composition.
Seats changing hands
- Members in italics did not contest their seat at this election.
The 1972 Election campaigns was concerned 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 had focused their energies on national economic development and defence. However, Australia's economic development in the 1950s and 1960s had led to the emergence of a range of "quality of life" issues related to urban development, education, and healthcare. By 1972 these "quality of life" issues had come 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. Throughout 1966 to 1972, Gough Whitlam, as Labor leader, 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. The Labor focus on "cities, schools and hospitals", as Whitlam put it, made it electorally appealing especially to the growing proportion of the Australian electorate living in the outer suburbs of the major cities.
Many commentators came to believe that the inability of the coalition parties to counteract these policies made its focus on national development and defence seem dated by contrast, especially as the Vietnam War began to enter its final stages. Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War had been initially popular, but as the prospect of a US victory diminished protests grew, especially focusing on the need to conscript soldiers to fight. Liberal policies towards Vietnam had always focused on the need to "contain" communist China, but the gradual US and Australian withdrawal was hard to reconcile with this commitment. In addition, the government was embarrassed after criticising the opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, for visiting China only shortly before American President Nixon visited in 1972.
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 as he had only emerged as Liberal Leader after a prolonged period of turmoil following the Coalition's unexpectedly poor showing at half Senate elections held in 1970, and various state elections. In early 1971, Country Party leader John McEwen had retired, to be replaced by Doug Anthony. McEwen, who had disliked McMahon, held a virtual veto over the possibility of his becoming Liberal leader, which he had exercised in 1968. Anthony declared that this veto was no longer in operation, clearing the way for a leadership challenge by McMahon against Prime Minister John Gorton. Gorton survived, but only narrowly, and soon called another leadership election, which he lost. This gave the impression of the Coalition being 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.
No Senate seats were up for election, although Queensland did hold an election for a single Senate seat because it had fallen vacant when Liberal Senator Annabelle Rankin resigned in 1971. The Queensland Parliament's temporary appointee, Neville Bonner (Australia's first Aboriginal Senator), faced and won the election held in conjunction with the House of Representatives election, as required by Section 15 of the Constitution before it was amended by referendum in 1977.
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 9 seats. Typically, elections that produce a change of government in Australia take the form of landslides (as in the elections of 1949, 1983, 1996 or 2007, for example). The comparatively small size of Whitlam's win is partly explained by his strong performance at the previous election of 1969, where he achieved a 7 percent swing, gaining 18 seats, from a low of 41 of 124 seats and a 43 percent two-party figure at the 1966 election.
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. 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 1970 to 1974. This in particular would make governing difficult and led to the early double dissolution election of 1974.
- Candidates of the Australian federal election, 1972
- Members of the Australian House of Representatives, 1972-1974
- AustralianPolitics.com 1972 election details
- "It's Time For Leadership" – Whitlam policy speech, 13 November 1972
- University of WA election results in Australia since 1890
- AEC 2PP vote
- Prior to 1984 the AEC did not undertake a full distribution of preferences for statistical purposes. The stored ballot papers for the 1983 election were put through this process prior to their destruction. Therefore the figures from 1983 onwards show the actual result based on full distribution of preferences.