Election rewind - Democrats bring three-corner contest in 1979

SOARING petrol prices and industrial unrest dominated the headlines in 1979 as Victorians sharpened their voting pencils.

Filling up the Chrysler Valiant or Holden Gemini was hitting the hit pocket nerve hard and governments worldwide were beginning to feel the heat of public disquiet.

The nation was also notching up an unenviable industrial relations record. We used to scoff at the British with their regular and bitter factory floor stand-offs but when it came to days lost due to strikes, Australia was in a league of its own.

It was against this backdrop that Premier Rupert Hamer went to the state governor to call an election for May 1979.

A genteel lawyer from Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs, Hamer prided himself on being a reformist premier.

Liberal Party advertising promoted Victoria as the "most progressive state in Australia." The Hamer government championed its record as having "the highest level of home ownership in the world, the highest average family incomes nationally and the best staffed school system in Australia."

Despite this success, Hamer was involved in a tight, three-cornered contest. In the red corner was Opposition Leader Frank Wilkes, an uninspiring speaker who nonetheless was at the helm when Labor was regaining ground in the Garden State. In the emerald corner was National Party leader Peter Ross-Edwards, a conservative grazier from the Goulburn Valley who was no fan of Hamer's liberal style. 

If that wasn't enough competition for the state's leader, charismatic senator Don Chipp had recently formed the Democrats and was contesting Victoria for the first time.

The result on election night was exceptionally close. For more than a week after polls closed, rigorous ballot counting and back-room discussions took place around Spring Street. Transport strikes brought Melbourne to a standstill as negotiations extended long into the night.

Hamer ended up the victor - 10 days later - but his period in office was nearing the end of the tram line.

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