Sweet Election Victories From The 1990s

Keating, O’Brien, Hewson

The 2019 election is on, but to look forward, we always need to look back, and we go far back into the archives to look at the events of elections from 1992 and 1993. But that’s over 25 years ago: are age-old events from history still relevant today?

Of course! The similarities between UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1992 and Bill Shorten in 2019 are striking.

Like Shorten, Kinnock had been ahead in the polls for almost three years and everyone was backing Labour to win. And he also faced attacks from the Murdoch-backed media, culminating in the infamous and grammatically-challenged newspaper headline: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”.

The election systems are slightly different in the two countries: Australia has two-party preferred and compulsory voting; the UK has first-past-the-post and voluntary voting. Shorten is still favoured to win here, but we think he’d be looking at the 1992 UK election campaign for all the things to avoid; the biggest issue would be hubris and assuming victory just falls into the leader’s lap.

Scott Morrison will be trying to emulate Paul Keating’s feat in 1993 of winning the unwinnable election. Yes, in a two-horse race, anything is possible, but Morrison is not Paul Keating, he leads a very damaged Coalition, and is papering over all forms of corruption (alleged). So we still think it’s very very unlikely.

But don’t forget the big clichés: the only poll that matters is on election day, and it’s not over until it’s over.


The 2019 federal election has been called and both sides of politics are steering through the first stages of the campaign, driving their buses and flying their planes, testing out their election scripts and trying to navigate a path towards an election victory on May 18.

According to all the polls and betting agencies, Labor and Bill Shorten are set to win this election, but it’s never as clear cut as the evidence suggests. We only have to look at the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential campaign and the Brexit in the UK to see how results can be quite different to expectations.

Elections, of course, are never the same and always play out to different campaign songsheets, They’re always made up of different politicians, different candidates, different circumstances, but I’ve scanned through the archives to see if there’s any elections from the past that can provide us with some insights in 2019.

And, I’ve found two elections, one in Britain, and one in Australia…

It’s 1992 in the UK, almost 18 months after Margaret Thatcher was removed as leader of the Conservative Party, and their new leader, John Major, hasn’t quite captured the imagination of the electorate.

He’s seen as the stop-gap leader who’s likely to lead the Conservatives to a defeat, after which they’re expected to elect a new leader and lick their wounds in opposition.

Neil Kinnock
British Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock in 1992.

Neil Kinnock is the leader of the British Labour Party, and has been the leader for over eight years, and with his nemesis Margaret Thatcher out of the way, Kinnock is expected to comfortably lead Labour back into office after 13 years of Conservative rule.

Here is his address to the Labour faithful, a few weeks before the election:

Neil Kinnock: We’re alright! This is the Labour Party, this is the party that’s going to win the election and win for our country. British people want a country with a sense of community, they want a Britain that is whole, and fair, and free. A sense of duty towards all of the people. That is a Labour government.

Now, the Labour Party had good reason to be optimistic: The Conservatives were seeking a fourth consecutive election victory – which is always difficult in Western democracies – there was a deep economic recession in Britain, and there had been a sharp rise in unemployment over the past year.

Labour had been ahead in opinion polls for most of the previous three years, even the conservative newspaper the Financial Times was backing a Labour victory, and there was a strong mood for change in the electorate – or, so we were told. But, as it turned out, not enough of a mood for change. This is what happened on the election night in 1992:

BBC commentator: Here are the scenes at the Conservative Party headquarters as John Major, the Prime Minister, arrives back, as Margaret Thatcher arrived back in ’87 with another victory to give them, a fourth term in office.

John Major: We’ve won tonight, a magnificent victory, a victory many people thought was beyond our grasp, but one that the Conservative Party always believed was there for the taking. And, as a result of that victory, we have five years to put into place those items and policies we set out in our manifesto, those dreams for our future…

John Major and the Conservatives were returned to office with a small majority, and Labour didn’t get the victory most people expected. There had also been a vicious campaign against Labour by the Murdoch-backed media which also wouldn’t have helped their cause, but it seemed that whatever people were telling opinion pollsters for three years, it wasn’t the same as what they were prepared to put on their ballot papers.

The 1992 British election result was very unusual and caught everyone by surprise, but an even bigger upset was coming up just around the corner…

In 1993, Australia was still recovering from the effects of a deep recession, unemployment had reached a post-war high of 11 per cent and the Australian dollar was only worth 66 US cents on the international money markets.

The Labor brand was on the nose in most parts of the country, and they’d just lost the elections in Victoria and Western Australia.

Labor had been the federal government since 1983, had made fundamental changes to the economy and the workplace through the Accord processes, and was seeking a fifth term in office.

It had barely scraped in during the 1990 election on the back of Green preference deals and Bob Hawke’s leadership of the Labor Party became more and more tenuous.

While it had been a successful government, reform fatigue had set in and this observation from Treasurer Paul Keating:

…This is the recession that Australia had to have…

became a millstone around his neck the Coalition was always keen to weigh him down with it.

After the 1990 election, there was a newcomer on the scene – John Hewson became the Leader of the Opposition, and released his Fightback! manifesto in 1991, a radical free-market proposal with the goods and service tax as its centrepiece.

Leader of the federal Liberal Party, John Hewson in 1991.

Soon after Hewson released his Fightback package, Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke for the Labor leadership

Bob Hawke: The question of who will be leading this party and who’ll be Prime Minister of Australia will be decided by my party in a ballot at 6.30 this afternoon.

Newsreader: Bob Hawke to resign, opening the way for a leadership ballot.

Newsreader: Paul Keating confirms he will challenge, and followers say he has the numbers.

He did have the numbers and became the new Prime Minister in December 1991.

For most of this parliamentary term, John Hewson was the preferred Prime Minister, and had the Coalition leading the Labor Party in 49 of the preceding 54 Newspoll surveys.

Just one month before the 1993 election, the Coalition was leading by 53 to 47 per cent in the two-party preferred vote.

Keating had a high disapproval rating for most of the time since he became Prime Minister, and questions about the election were mainly about how many seats Labor would lose, and even whether it could survive as a political party.

And then, 10 days before the election, this happened:

Mike Willesee: If I buy a birthday cake from a cake shop and GST is in place do I pay more or less for that birthday cake?

John Hewson: Well, it will depend whether cakes today in that shop are subject to sales tax, or they’re not – firstly. And they may have a sales tax on them. Let’s assume that they don’t have a sales tax on them… then that birthday cake is going to be sales tax free. Then of course you wouldn’t pay – it would be exempt, would, sorry – there would be no GST on it under our system. If it was one with a sales tax today it would attract the GST, and then the difference would be the difference between the two taxes whatever the sales tax rate is on birthday cakes, how it’s decorated, because there will be sales tax perhaps on some of the decorations as well, and then of course the price – the price will reflect that accordingly. But the key point is that there, the average Australian will have more money in their pocket.

Willesee: No, but just on the, just on the birthday cake, because I’m trying to pick up a simple example. You tell us in what you’ve published that the cost of cake goes down, the cost of confectionery goes up, there’s icing and maybe ice-cream, and then there’s candles on top of it.”

Hewson: That’s right, now that’s the difficulty – that’s what I’m addressing in the question. To give you an accurate answer, I need to know exactly what type of cake to give a detailed answer. I mean if it’s just a cake from a cake shop that is not presently subject to sales tax, it will not attract the GST.

Willesee: But isn’t that…

Hewson: If it is a cake shop, a cake from a cake shop that has sales tax, and it’s decorated and candles as you say, that attracts sales tax, then of course we scrap the sales tax, before the GST is…

Willesee: Okay – it’s just an example. If the answer to a birthday cake is so complex – you do have an overall problem with the GST, don’t you?

Although the polls tightened dramatically in the final week of the campaign, the Coalition was still expected to win. Even on the day of the election, John Hewson was highly confident of getting the Coalition back into government, even detailing the conversations he’d be having with Treasury, after he won the election:

Reporter: Though he won’t predict the margin, Dr Hewson seems to have no doubt of the result tomorrow.

John Hewson: We believe so. Have to be patience though.

Reporter: He said he will carry out all the commitments he’s made and won’t cry foul once he’s in office.

Hewson: We aren’t going to go into government and change our mind, we aren’t going to in and say “look, things are worse than we feared”. We feared the worst, we know we’re going to find it.

Reporter: He says he’ll start work on Sunday, getting Treasury briefings on the state of the economy.

But on election night, the result was quite different. Here’s John Hewson again:

Clearly it was a tough campaign, and clearly it’s close. Something like 15 or 16 seats still in the balance but you’d have to say, the probabilities are that the government will win.

The Prime Minister, Paul Keating was more definitive about the result:

Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Well, this is the sweetest victory of all! This is a victory for the true believers.

Anita Keating and Paul Keating on election night, 1993.
Anita Keating and Paul Keating on election night, 1993.

There were an incredible 18 seats that changed hands from one side to the other – 11 seats were picked up by Labour, 7 by the Coalition, Labor picked up a swing towards it of 1.54 per cent and gained two seats, winning the election with a majority of 15 seats.

Somehow, Labor had managed to win the unwinnable election.

In hindsight, the 1993 election was a pyrrhic victory for Labor. It lost government in a crushing defeat at the next election in 1996, and the Coalition under John Howard introduced most of the contents of Hewson’s Fightback! package between 1996 and 2007.

But still, the 1993 election result is the most unlikely of victories in Australian political history.

Looking at both of these historical elections, Bill Shorten will be hoping to avoid what happened to Neil Kinnock in the 1992 British election, and ironically, Scott Morrison will be looking to emulate Paul Keating from the 1993 Australian election.

But Scott Morrison is not Paul Keating and, unlike Labour in 1993, the Coalition this time around is a divided party and they’re trying paper over a long list of corruption allegations.

But in a two-horse election race anything can happen, and the usual clichés we’ll hear over the next few weeks are: don’t believe the polls, the only poll that matters is the one on election day, and it’s not over until it’s over.

Facebook Comments