The first redistribution after Labor came to office in 1941 was held in 1949.
The size of many city seats had increased greatly since the 1939 redistribution. In line with its 1941 election promise, the Government decided to abolish the three existing zones (Sydney, Newcastle and Country) and institute a one-person, one-vote system where all electorates would have the same quota of voters with a tolerance of 20% either way. As well as producing a more equitable electoral system, this would help the Government politically by increasing the number of Sydney and Newcastle seats which were more winnable for Labor than those in rural areas. However, the proposal sparked off a revolt amongst country Labor Members. After much negotiation, a compromise was finally hammered out. This involved increasing the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly from 90 to 94. They would be divided into two zones, Sydney and Country (including Newcastle). The quota for city seats would be approximately 6000 votes higher than in the Country zone, an improvement in the urban position of about 3000 compared to the former situation. The tolerance would be fixed at 20%. There would be 48 seats in the new Sydney zone (an increase of 5) and 46 in the Country (the old Newcastle and Country zones contained a combined total of 47). On the face of it, the country would thus lose only one seat. However, when the redistribution proposals came down, four seats in the Country zone that were predominantly rural in character were abolished – Corowa and Lachlan held by the Country Party and Ashburnham and Namoi held by Labor. The three seats that replaced them, Kahibah, Lake Macquarie and Gosford, were on the fringes of Sydney and Newcastle.
The inclusion of Newcastle in the Country zone gave the Government of the day an obvious advantage by allowing these predominantly safe Labor seats to take advantage of the lower quota in that zone, thus increasing Labor representation. These changes and the ensuing redistribution were the beginning of a mild pro-Labor bias in the electoral system that was to be a feature of the rest of Labor’s term in office. According to Joan Rydon:
… there is substance in the claims of the opposition parties that the ALP had an electoral advantage and that they would have needed well over half the votes to win half the seats. While it must be emphasised that no electoral system (certainly no single-member electorate system) is likely to be free from bias, it remains true that the ALP [has] been favoured in NSW since at least 1950 … To what extent movements and growth of population were responsible and to what extent there were elements of ‘gerrymandering’ in the changing of electoral boundaries are questions to which there are unlikely to be final answers.
Calculations by Colin Hughes and Malcolm Mackerras also indicate that there was a mild pro-Labor bias in the electoral system from 1950 onwards. It was to persist for the rest of Labor’s term in office until 1965.1
McGirr’s performance in office was lacklustre, especially when compared to McKell. The Government’s position was eroded by other difficulties. Faction fighting broke out in Caucus. The voters were inconvenienced by a lack of housing, shortages of many essential commodities, industrial disputes and frequent disruptions to the electricity supply. Cold war anti-Communist hysteria was used by Labor’s opponents to try and discredit the Government. Menzies’ victory in the 1949 Federal election had proved that the newly formed Liberal Party was a force to be reckoned with. Many voters were tired of post-war austerity and found the Liberal Party’s promise of more individual enterprise and less government regulation attractive.
That the electoral tide was running against the McGirr Government was demonstrated by a series of by-election reverses, culminating in the defeat of the Federal Labor Government only months before the 1950 State election was due. In May 1948 the Government lost Coogee and, in July, Kogarah. There were substantial swings against Labor in both seats. The Labor vote dropped almost 7% on the 1947 general election result in Coogee and over 9% in Kogarah. In March 1949 Concord was also lost to the Liberals. Another by-election in Concord early in 1950, caused by the death of the newly elected Member, saw the Liberal Party retain the seat with an increased majority. A by-election the same day in the previously safe Labor seat of Wollongong-Kembla saw the Government majority reduced to less than 2%.
McGirr sought to make attacks by the press a scapegoat for these
poor electoral results. As part of his campaign against the newspapers, he introduced controversial changes to the electoral laws. One change prohibited the dissemination of any “electoral matter”, including comment in newspapers, placards, signs, leaflets, and the use of public address systems, within 70 hours of the close of the polls. This was allegedly to give the electors time to consider the issues “calmly and quietly” without “the spate of last minute comment and propaganda - some of it exaggerated and highly misleading”.2 Other provisions greatly restricted the availability of postal votes. These changes provided added ammunition for Opposition attempts to characterise the Government as authoritarian and repressive. The 70 hour “breathing space” amendment proved to be so unpopular that it was repealed before the 1950 election.
The Government’s election prospects were further damaged by a serious internal dispute in 1950. In the 1949 Legislative Council ballot, a number of Labor Members broke the Party ticket. As a result, four offending MLAs were denied endorsement for the 1950 poll: J Seiffert (Monaro), J Geraghty (North Sydney), SR Heferen (Barwon) and F Stanley (Lakemba). McGirr quixotically decided to support them. He personally appeared before the ALP Executive on two occasions to plead their case. When the Executive stood firm, McGirr announced in March 1950 that he was going to resign. A week later, McGirr told a surprised Caucus that he had decided to stay on after all. All four disendorsed MLAs ran as Independents.
In his policy speech for the June 1950 election McGirr laboured under the handicap of his many unfulfilled pledges from the 1947 campaign. The most obvious, the promise to build 90 000 houses in three years, was explained away by claiming 83 000 homes had actually been built “or placed under construction”. Some promises, such as that to rapidly complete the Eastern Suburbs Railway, were repeated (it was, in fact, opened by Neville Wran in 1979). McGirr attempted to take advantage of growing post-war prosperity by claiming that Labor was responsible for the current good times and that they would be jeopardised by a change of Government. The Opposition made much of McGirr’s broken promises and the Government’s failings in the transport and housing areas. It also campaigned strongly on the claim that the McGirr Government was “wedded to Socialism and indifferent to Communism”. The Government was attacked for allowing the electricity supply to deteriorate alarmingly.
One of the few advantages Labor had in the 1950 election was continuing disunity between the Liberal and Country Parties. The Liberal Party, unlike the UAP, advocated amalgamation of the two Parties and mounted a determined effort to capture rural seats. The Country Party, in return, publicly attacked the Liberals for not confining their efforts to metropolitan areas. Relations between the Parties were so poor that no formal pre-election agreement was able to be negotiated. The Opposition was also handicapped by the colourless personality of its Leader, Vernon Treatt. Although a decent and capable man, Treatt was not temperamentally suited to leading a popular crusade to sweep Labor from office as Menzies had in 1949. Labor and the Liberal/Country Parties held 46 seats each after the poll. However, two of the disendorsed Labor MLAs who had been elected as Independents, Seiffert and Geraghty, agreed
to support McGirr and Labor thus retained office by the narrowest of margins. The Party had won 47% of the primary vote. DC