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Fact Check

Barnaby Joyce says Labor's 2022 primary vote was its lowest since 1910. Is that correct?

RMIT ABC Fact Check
Posted , updated 
Barnaby Joyce wears a blue check shirt and talks in between two sillouhetted figures. Verdict: IN THE BALLPARK
Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce says Labor's primary vote at the 2022 election was its lowest since 1910.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The claim

Following the Coalition's election loss, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce sought to play down Labor's win.

"For the Labor Party, they got the lowest primary vote, I think, since 1910," he told the Seven Network's Sunrise program.


"It wasn't a Ruddslide, it wasn't Gough Whitlam, it wasn't Bob Hawke. They got an incredibly low primary vote," he said.

Was the Labor Party's primary vote at the 2022 election its lowest since 1910? RMIT ABC Fact Check checks the history books.

The verdict

Mr Joyce's claim is in the ballpark.

Labor primary vote of 32.6 per cent was low by historic standards but his selection of 1910 is inexact.

Labor's primary vote in 2022 is indeed worse than any recorded by the Labor prime ministers Mr Joyce mentioned.

But going back further in history is complicated by a split in the Labor Party during the 1930s which resulted in the entire NSW branch being expelled.

The splinter group, led by two-time NSW premier Jack Lang, ran candidates against the federal party and in NSW received a much higher primary vote as well as more seats.

Experts contacted by Fact Check expressed differing opinions on whether the vote of Lang-aligned parties should be included in Labor's primary vote.

If Lang votes are included in the calculation, Labor's primary in 2022 is the lowest since 1903 when it was 31 per cent.

If Lang is excluded, it's the lowest since 1934 when Labor's primary vote was depressed to 26.8 per cent by the presence of Lang candidates.

Anthony Albanese holds up hands with Penny Wong, his partner and son on a stage
Despite winning the 2022 election, Labor's primary vote was historically low.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

What is the primary vote?

In Australia, federal elections are run under a system of preferential voting.


This means that when filling out a ballot paper for a seat in the House of Representatives, voters must number all boxes beginning with a 1 for their most preferred candidate, and continuing sequentially until all boxes are numbered. The box numbered with a 1 is commonly referred to as a first preference vote.

During the counting process, votes are allocated to candidates in accordance with these preferences. If no candidate reaches 50 per cent of the first preference vote, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is excluded.

The votes on these ballot papers are then allocated based on who the voter put second. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote and is declared the winner.

This sits in contrast to a "first past the post" system, used in many other countries, where voters can only vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins — a candidate is not required to have more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The ABC's chief elections analyst, Antony Green, has defined the concept of a primary vote simply in the past: "The tally of No. 1 preferences recorded by each candidate."

The tally which takes into account voters' preferences is referred to as the "two-candidate preferred", or where these two candidates represent the Labor Party and the Liberal-National Party Coalition, this vote is also referred to as the two-party preferred.

The primary vote can be used to describe the tally of first preference votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, government is formed in the House, and the results in the Senate are not relevant to who wins an election by forming government.

Thus, Fact Check will use Labor's primary vote in the House of Representatives to assess Mr Joyce's claim.

Labor's primary vote as recorded by the Australian Electoral Commission for 2022 was 32.6 per cent.

By comparison, data from the Parliamentary Library shows the initial primary votes of the Labor prime ministers noted by Mr Joyce to be much higher.

When Mr Whitlam was first elected, Labor recorded a primary vote of 49.6 per cent. This dropped to a low of 39.6 in 1977, when he contested his last election as opposition leader.

When Mr Hawke recorded a primary vote of 49.5 per cent when he was first elected, which fell to 39.4 per cent at his last election in 1990, before being replaced by Paul Keating.

Mr Rudd recorded a primary vote of 43.4 per cent at the 2007 election, and of 33.4 per cent at the 2013 election.

Paul Keating and Bob Hawke sit behind each other. Microphones are on a desk in front of them.
Labor's primary vote in 2022 was lower than under recent Labor prime ministers.(National Archives of Australia)

Mr Joyce's source

Fact Check contacted Mr Joyce's office to ask for the source of his claim.

A spokesman pointed to an article on, administered by former teacher Malcolm Farnsworth.

The article, entitled Success and failure: The ALP's results in federal elections since 1910, contains a table with the Labor Party's primary vote and two-party preferred vote in the Lower House for every election between 1910 and 2016.

The article was published before the 2019 election, so does not contain these results, nor does it contain results for the 1901, 1903 or 1906 elections.

It says the three historical elections were excluded because "they took place before the formation of the two-party system as we know it. Since 1910, elections have been fought between the ALP and the non-Labor parties under a variety of names".

But Mr Joyce did not mention the advent of the two-party system — he only mentioned 1910.

Fact Check will assess Mr Joyce's claim on the basis of all elections since federation.

Labor splits

A review of the data from the Parliamentary Library (1901 - 2016) and the AEC (2019) shows a dramatic change in Labor's primary vote in the 1930s.

This period was marked by a pronounced split in the party, which produced a splinter group in NSW referred to as "Lang Labor".

Jack Lang delivering a speech
Former NSW premier Jack Lang split with the Labor Party in the 1930s, depressing the Labor vote.(Wikimedia Commons: Fairfax)

The splinter group was named for its leader, two-time NSW premier Jack Lang, and was the result of a disagreement between NSW and the Commonwealth and other states in how to deal with the Great Depression.

Lang-aligned candidates won seats at the 1931, 1934 and 1940 elections, as well as Lang himself winning the NSW seat of Reid at the 1946 election.

According to the National Archives of Australia, Lang Labor "at one stage encompassed virtually the whole NSW branch of the [Labor] Party."

In the lead-up to the 1931 election, Lang's supporters who had been elected to federal parliament as Australian Labor Party members in 1929 helped to bring down the Labor government led by James Scullin.

Lang Labor recorded a larger primary vote in NSW than Federal Labor at the 1931 and 1934 elections, while competing against Federal Labor candidates.

And in 1931, the party ended up with four NSW seats in the federal parliament, compared to federal Labor's three; in 1934 it finished with nine NSW seats to federal Labor's one.

After John Curtin replaced Scullin as opposition leader in 1935 he reunified the party and all the MPs elected in 1934 as Lang Labor members became Labor members from 1936. 

Another breakaway established by Lang, called Non-Communist Labor Party, won four NSW seats in the 1940 federal election.

The majority of MPs who were Lang-aligned ended their parliamentary careers as Australian Labor Party representatives, even as Lang himself stood outside the party.

To split, or not to split?

Fact Check contacted political historians and psephologists for guidance on whether the Lang Labor vote should be counted as "Labor's primary vote".

Frank Bongiorno, an Australian labour, political and cultural historian at the Australian National University's School of History, told Fact Check: "In my view, in measuring the strength of the ‘Labor vote' in NSW in the 1930s, you'd need to count both Lang Labor and Federal Labor for comparison with other periods to make any real sense."

Sean Scalmer, a professor of Australian history at the University of Melbourne's School of Historical Studies, noted that the Labor Party had been characterised by many splits on both its left and right flanks throughout history.

"Three splits 'to the right' helped to produce new and enduring anti-Labor Parties (the Nationalist Party, the United Australian Party, the Democratic Labor Party). Splits to 'the left' tended not to produce enduring institutions that competed with the Australian Labor Party over the longer term.

"Since 'Lang Labor' candidates stood against 'ALP' candidates, there are possible grounds to exclude 'Lang Labor' from a 'Labor vote'. But since Lang Labor did not emerge into an enduring anti-Labor institution, or strongly cooperate with existing anti-Labor parties of the political right, it is in my view defensible to fold their support into a wider 'Labor vote'."

William Bowe, editor of the Australian electoral studies blog the Pollbludger, said it's "not realistic" to view Federal Labor's vote in the 1931 and 1934 elections in isolation of the Lang Labor vote.

"[In 1934] Federal Labor got 9.4 per cent in NSW and Lang Labor got 35.9 per cent. People voting for either clearly regarded themselves as Labor voters," he said.

But psephologist Kevin Bonham said it was better to count federal Labor (ALP) and Lang Labor votes distinctly, while noting that Lang Labor depressed the Federal Labor vote.

"Among other things, NSW Labor was expelled by the national ALP, meaning that the Lang Labor candidates were not endorsed by the official ALP.

"The fact that Lang Labor were not regarded as part of Labor by the official Labor Party (including the two running campaigns against each other) is itself sufficient evidence that they were not the same party," he said.

In the article referred to by Mr Joyce, a table of the Labor Party's primary vote notes the 1931, 1934 and 1940 elections as sums of the Lang-aligned and Labor Party first preference vote.

Preference flows

An indication of voter sentiment at the time can be gleaned from preference flows.

Using data compiled from Psephos Adam Carr's Election Archive, Fact Check has compiled preference flows between Federal Labor and Lang Labor candidates at the 1931 and 1934 elections in NSW.

There were three contests at the 1931 election where Lang Labor preferences flowed to Federal Labor candidates and these were all in strong numbers: around 90 per cent.

Dr Bonham referred to the flows in the opposite direction, between Labor and Lang Labor as "not particularly strong".

The largest preference flow achieved in the opposite direction was 78 per cent, with the lowest at just 48 per cent. The average of Federal Labor preference flows to Lang Labor candidates was only 65.9 per cent.

For reference, even Greens preferences at the 2019 election flowed to the Labor Party at a rate of 82.2 per cent on average.

Still, Professor Bongiorno maintained that combining the Lang and Federal Labor votes makes "fair sense" for comparison with recent happenings.

"Clearly, Lang Labor and Federal Labor were often bitter rivals. Equally clearly, a primary vote for either was a 'Labor' vote in a general sense, and could have been considered a vote for an 'official Labor' candidate although with different sources of authority in each instance, state and federal.

"Some federal Labor preferences flowing to the [predecessor of the Liberal Party, the United Australia Party] were likely anti-Lang protest votes by voters who probably thought of themselves as Labor people."

Mr Bowe noted that flows from Federal Labor to Lang Labor were not as strong as the other direction but "I don't think that's all that significant for our purposes."

"I would suggest what this shows is that many voters for the official/federal Labor Party were angry at the spoiler effect being played by the “splitters”, precisely because of their loyalty to the party," he told Fact Check in an email.

Professor Scalmer noted these figures showed Lang Labor outpolling the ALP in many seats in NSW, which re-enforced the notion that the party appealed to those who previously voted for the ALP.

"My own view is that it makes little sense to exclude 'Lang Labor' from a 'Labor vote' when Lang had served as Labor premier of NSW, when Langites were battling for control of the Labor Party, and when those who voted for Lang Labor so strongly allocated their preferences to the ALP.

"The weaker flow of preferences from the ALP to Lang Labor confirms the competition and bitterness and the likely sense among some Labor voters that Lang's policies were dangerous and unappealing. But in my view this is not sufficient grounds for excluding Lang Labor from the 'Labor vote'.

"Of course, I acknowledge that others will have a different reading," he said.

Noting the differing opinions among  Fact Check will assess Mr Joyce's claim on both terms.

Labor's primary vote

Using data from the Parliamentary Library for elections up to the year 2016 and AEC data for 2019 and 2022, Fact Check has graphed Labor's primary vote for every Lower House election since federation, including and excluding the Lang Labor vote.

The primary votes of other Labor splinter groups have been excluded, but they do not materially affect the result.

Labor's primary vote for the 2022 election was 32.6 per cent.

Including the Lang Labor vote, the last time it was lower than that was 1903 — Australia's second ever federal election — when it was 31 per cent.

In 1910, the year Mr Joyce mentioned, it was 50 per cent.

But excluding the Lang Labor vote, the lowest the ALP's vote sank was in 1934, when it fell to 26.8 per cent, largely due Lang candidates running in NSW.

"On the whole though, I don’t have any problem with Barnaby Joyce’s comment," Mr Bowe told Fact Check.

"He should acknowledge though that something broadly true is similar of the Liberal Party, and that the phenomenon we’re seeing is a decline in the legitimacy not specifically of the ALP but of the entire two-party system.

"[If] it was indeed the case that Labor recorded lower primary votes at these [1930s] elections than they did in 2022, this was due to an exceptional circumstance – the proportion of 'Labor voters' today (and Coalition voters, for that matter) is plainly a lot lower than it was then."

Principal researcher: RMIT ABC Fact Check Editor Matt Martino


Posted , updated