Such an extraordinary and varied result needs analysis and explanation at both the macro and micro level. As already indicated the passage of motions of support for the war effort at a special ALP Conference in June 9 and the decisive action taken in expelling those responsible for the ‘Hands Off Russia’ resolution is referred to by Hasluck as having the effect of giving federal Labor ‘the credit in the eyes of many electors of having pledged full support for the war effort and having taken resolute action against those militant sections who might have undermined that pledge’. 37 At the same time, the electorate could be described as being in two minds about which side would provide the more stable government if the war situation deteriorated further. Thus while ‘there was some lack of confidence about the ability of the Menzies ministry to provide strong and united leadership in the future’ it could also be assumed that ‘the divisions in the Labor party and lingering doubts about its attitude to the war fostered some uncertainty about whether it too, was likely to fill the need’. 38
As already indicated too, one consequence of the uncertainty had been the call for the formation of a national government of unity such has had already appeared under Winston Churchill in the UK. At the time in May 1940 Menzies, speaking in parliament on a motion from a Victorian UAP backbencher calling for the formation of a national government, indicated his willingness ‘to take part in the work of a national government on the broadest possible basis directed by all those in parliament who can agree upon a common policy’ while stressing that ultimately this could only be achieved with the support of Curtin and his party. 39 Curtin for his part, responded that, while he had no grievance concerning the Prime Ministers’ dealings with him or the way he had been able to deal with ministers, he nevertheless still contended there were differences of opinion as to how Australia should be defended especially ‘as to the form and degree of the contribution that Australia should make towards the common defence of the whole British Empire’. 40 He conceded that when the time came on the hustings he would ask for a mandate but as things stood there was no substantial pressure on the government as there had been in Britain prior to the formation of its national government. A few weeks later Menzies offered cabinet places to Labor but these were rejected and as already indicated when the election campaign eventuated towards the end of August it was of necessity brief and the government campaigning was ‘less intensive than usual’. In Hasluck’s opinion the 1940 election, despite some side issues relating to petrol rationing and assistance to wheat farmers, was essentially about who should be entrusted with the conduct of the war at a time when the concept of a national government was not really a feasible prospect in the minds of most electors. 41
While the way the leaders handled the campaign may then help to explain the lack of a clear cut result, the State-by-State variations, and in particular the New South Wales enigma, requires more specific explanation. Indeed, one can well argue that there was no clear or obvious advance made by Labor anywhere in Australia except in New South Wales. Even Labor’s successes in capturing Riverina and Calare in New South Wales, as well as Wannon in Victoria and Maranoa in Queensland are probably all explicable in terms of wheat farmer discontent and Hasluck has suggested that ‘close attention to the wheat industry by Menzies might have saved all four of these for Government. 42 Essentially, the spring board for Labor’s near victory in September 1940 was its success in gaining five seats in New South Wales from its opponents notwithstanding the fact that three separate Labor parties contested the election.
In assessing what happened in New South Wales in 1940 it need be recalled that in 1937 in the wake of the truce between federal and Lang Labor the parties had nominated unified candidates in each seat though a few dissidents ran as independents. Even so Labor’s primary vote of 45.25 per cent in New South Wales in the 1937 federal election was disappointing given that in the 1934 election NSW State and federal Labor combined had polled an almost identical 45.29 per cent of the primary vote—35.93 per cent for Lang Labor which won 9 seats, compared with 4 in 1931 plus a fifth in a subsequent by election, and 9.36 per cent for Federal Labor which won one seat compared with 3 in 1931. The presence of the independent Labor candidates obviously detracted from the official Labor vote in the House of Representatives and the party had a net gain of only one seat even though in the Senate election on the same day the newly (albeit temporarily) unified party won all four seats with a primary vote of over 50 per cent.
By contrast, the Labor recovery from the Lang split, despite the ‘Hands off Russia’ dispute, saw the combined vote for the three NSW Labor parties reach 55 per cent and 54 per cent of the primary votes respectively in the House and the Senate and the parties secured 16 of the 28 seats in the State, a strong result though still four seats short of the level in 1929. One might well conclude that the strong Labor vote reflected the fact that essentially New South Wales as the most industrialized State was probably more naturally Labor voting than the other states at the time. Moreover, despite the disunity the preference flow remained strong between the different strands of the movement. Thus in MacQuarie, regained by Chifley after a nine year absence from the House, Lang Labor preferences went in the ratio of 89-11 to Chifley, in Watson Labor won the seat with nearly 87 per cent of Lang Labor preferences and in the rural seat of Calare, there was a drift of barely 5 per cent of preferences away from the successful ALP candidate in a seat previously held by the Country party.
Given this outcome therefore it seems it is to the failure of the non Labor vote in New South Wales that most attention need be directed. The combined UAP-Country party vote in 1940 in New South Wales was only 38.89 per cent of the primary vote compared with 47.63 per cent for the two parties in 1937 plus an additional 1.82 per cent for Independent UAP candidates. Effectively the swing to Labor in New South Wales in 1940 was of the order of 10 per cent. In Hasluck’s words ‘the Government was defeated in New South Wales only and in an election decided ‘on reputation rather than policy’. 43 In his view there had been ‘a greater severity and constancy of press criticism of a niggling kind in the New South Wales press ever since the commencement of the war’. Former Country Party leader Sir Earle Page, himself a strong critic of Menzies in 1939 suggested that ‘The vote in New South Wales was not so much a vote for Labour as a vote against domination of national affairs by Victoria’ while Menzies himself commented that ‘I don’t think we were beaten by our political enemies in New South Wales’.
As already indicated too, the UAP in New South Wales had decided on a policy of multiple endorsements resulting in a situation where in several seats there were as many as three or four endorsed UAP candidates and also several independents . Menzies himself was deeply wounded by press criticism that he needed to bring ‘bigger and stronger men into his cabinet’ and indeed, in the aftermath of the election, the Sydney Morning Herald conceded that doubt had developed among voters concerning the government’s ‘strength to organize the war effort on “all in” lines’ and that despite ‘a solidly-founded war programme developed under the impetus of increasing danger. . . some of the distrust formerly engendered remained’. 44
Another factor in Labor’s favour was its ability to attract strong candidates given the success of Ben Chifley and Dr Herbert Evatt in marginal UAP-held seats. In Barton Evatt’s share of the primary vote at nearly 57.5 per cent despite the presence of Lang Labor and State Labor candidates compared with a primary vote of just under 41 per cent and after preferences of 48 per cent for Labor’s candidate in 1937 while in MacQuarie the swing to Labor after preferences was 10 per cent. By contrast, the swing away from the UAP which cost it the seat of Watson was only of the order of 5 per cent and even less in other government-held seats such as Eden Monaro and Parramatta Another issue which also did not help the situation for the government in New South Wales was its decision in 1940, despite some misgivings by Menzies, to legislate to establish a car industry in Australia providing for the grant of a virtual monopoly to Australian Consolidated Industries (ACI) which already held a monopoly over the manufacture of glass bottles. The Country Party was strongly opposed to the bill, having made a free vote on the issue a condition of its reformation of a coalition with the UAP in March 1940—itself an event prompted by the government’s defeat in the Corio by election—and although some NSW Labor members favoured the proposal the reference to the monopoly was subsequently removed from the bill on an amendment moved by Curtin. Earlier in the year J N Lawson, the minister negotiating the agreement had been forced to resign after it was revealed that he had leased a racehorse from ACI’s managing director, and it was Lawson who lost his seat to Chifley in the general election. Although the legislation passed in its amended form wartime difficulties and other factors prevented the agreement from ever coming into effect and the legislation was repealed in 1945.
Looking more closely at the results in the other States in Victoria Labor contested four additional seats compared with 1937 and polled an additional 4 per cent of the primary vote. Its only electoral gain was in the rural seat of Wannon where Labor’s Don McLeod won by nearly 4,000 votes after increasing his primary vote by 9 per cent and securing nearly one-third of the Independent Country party and Independent preferences. By contrast, in the neighbouring seat of Corangamite (formerly held by deceased minister Street) in a straight out contest with the UAP the ALP suffered an adverse swing of about 3 per cent and Hasluck’s analysis has indicated that Government candidates generally speaking polled more strongly in 1940 than in 1937. In the Senate too Labor’s share of the primary vote fell from 49 per cent to 42 per cent.
Labor also gained one seat in Queensland—the rural seat of Maranoa which it won from the Country party with a swing of 6 per cent after preferences—but the impression that this result was against the tide is confirmed by the fact that the seat was won back from Labor in 1943 despite the landslide vote in most other states. Elsewhere in 1940 Labor suffered an adverse swing of 10 per cent in retaining Herbert centred on Townsville; in Brisbane a swing against him of at least 3.5 per cent saw Labor’s George Lawson retain his seat by only 119 votes; while in other Brisbane-based seats a Labor majority of 324 in Griffith in 1937 only increased to 650 in 1940 while in Moreton there was at best a very small swing to Labor in this marginal UAP suburban seat. Across the state Labor’s primary vote rose by about 3 per cent mainly due to the disappearance of Social Credit candidates but in the Senate there was effectively no swing to Labor at all.
Even less successful was Labor’s campaign in South Australia and Tasmania. In Wakefield, won from the UAP in a by election, the UAP easily regained the seat though with a vote still 10 per cent below its 1937 level; in Hindmarsh, Labor’s only House of Representatives seat in the state the swing against Labor was 5 per cent; and in Adelaide there was also a small swing against Labor. In the Senate Labor made no headway with a vote of somewhere in the order of 43 per cent after preferences in both 1937 and 1940. Meanwhile in Tasmania Labor lost Denison to the UAP by 536 votes after an adverse swing of 5 per cent and the UAP also easily regained Joe Lyons’ old seat of Wilmot, lost narrowly at a by election. Elsewhere, in Labor-held Franklin the swing to the UAP was about 5 per cent, in the UAP seat of Darwin about 7 per cent and in the Senate the Labor vote fell by 10 per cent.
Finally, what of Curtin’s own state of Western Australia. Aggregate voting figures for the House of Representatives are relatively meaningless with no election required in Labor’s safe seat of Kalgoorlie but in the Senate the swing against the ALP was in the order of 7 per cent. In Forrest there was a 1 per cent swing to the Country party, in Perth the ALP primary vote fell by nearly 3 per cent, while in Swan the swing to Labor was less than 1 per cent. However the most extraordinary result was in Fremantle, where Curtin himself had recorded an absolute majority of well over 5000 votes in 1937, with the UAP primary vote in 1940 rising from less than 41 per cent to over 46 per cent. On this occasion, aided perhaps by a favourable ballot paper order, Curtin only survived by securing nearly 44 per cent of the more than 3000 preferences from the Independent candidate to win the seat by 641 votes.
There are many apocryphal elements in the story of Curtin’s survival in a seat which seemed well nigh lost at one stage to the point where he wrote ‘what amounted to a resignation letter’ to the caucus secretary 45 and two of his colleagues offered to stand down to create a seat for him. Strong support from voters from the front are suggested as a major factor in his recovery in the later stages of counting 46 and although there were only 328 separately identified votes from overseas forces more than 70 per cent of these would probably have gone to Curtin after preferences. Curtin lost ground compared with 1937 in all the subdivisions though more substantially in strong Labor areas like Victoria Park, Fremantle and East Fremantle than in such areas as South Perth and Wembley Park. Interestingly, his vote held even more firmly in the Claremont subdivision taking in his own residence at Cottesloe. The fact that Curtin polled relatively strongly in postal votes but less so amongst those who recorded absent votes all suggest that the strong campaign by his UAP opponent F R Lee and Curtin’s absence from the electorate for all of the campaign after the first week may well have accounted for the surprisingly strong swing away from Labor which stands in stark contrast with Menzies whose primary vote rose by 13 per cent in Kooyong. Certainly it would have been a supreme irony if the election which placed his party on the verge of regaining office had cost him his own political career.