Communication and Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Digital Scholarship, Historical Studies, Life Writing

Life Sentences

08.11.10 | Comment?

Hung parliaments at the Federal level in Australia are very unusual. The first such political stalemate since 1910 occurred at the onset of World War II. The Federal election of 21 September 1940 was held 70 years prior to the 2010 ballot that ultimately confirmed Julia Gillard as prime minister of a minority Labor government.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography tells the story of the 1940 election that led to Robert Menzies being returned as Prime Minister of a minority coalition government—followed by its downfall the next year—through the lives and careers of the key political players. These included Prime Ministers Joseph Lyons, Robert Menzies, Arthur Fadden and John Curtin, along with the two conservative Victorian Independents, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson, who held the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Menzies had entered Parliament in 1934 as a member of the United Australia Party (predecessor to the Liberal Party of Australia, constituted in 1945) serving under Prime Minister Lyons. The UAP–Country Party Coalition was re-elected in 1937, but Lyons died suddenly of a heart attack in April 1939. He was the first Australian Prime Minister to die while in office. Menzies took over months before the outbreak of World War II and just over a year before a general election. Following the 1940 election, five weeks elapsed before Menzies was in a position to inform the Governor-General that he had the confidence of the House of Representatives to take executive authority and lead the country.

In 1941, while Menzies was in England for four months debating strategy with Churchill, his approval rating plummeted.

Country Party member Arthur Fadden served in Menzies’ cabinet as a minister, but he had no portfolio of his own until the death of three other cabinet ministers in an air disaster. Fadden inherited the air and civil aviation portfolios.

After holding office for a total of two years and 120 days, Menzies lost the confidence of his party. He was forced to resign on 29 August 1941. Fadden, who held the Federal seat of Darling Downs from 1936 to 1949, took over from Menzies.

This political drama came to a peak when the Opposition leader John Curtin attacked Fadden’s budget, leading to a House vote in which the government was defeated 36 to 33. Alexander Wilson and Arthur Coles, the two Independents, sided with Labor. Wilson, who had voted with Labor before, and Coles, who was reported to have described Menzies’ resignation as a ‘lynching’, withdrew their support from the UAP to vote against the Fadden government. Fadden was Prime Minister for only 40 days. Ultimately it was the Independents, and their support of the left, that forced Fadden to resign, opening the way for John Curtin to become Prime Minister on 7 October 1941.

Arthur, Paul Longley. “Life Sentences,” ANU Reporter (Summer 2010): 8.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity