Liberal and Country League

The Liberal and Country League (LCL) was the major conservative party in South Australia from 1932 to 1974.[1] In its 42-year existence, it spent 34 years in government, mainly due to an electoral malapportionment scheme known as the Playmander, introduced by the LCL government in 1936, which saw a change from multi-member to single-member seats in the lower house, a reduction of MPs from 46 to 39, and two-thirds of seats to be located in rural areas ("the country"). This arrangement was retained even as Adelaide, the state capital, grew to two-thirds of the state's population. The most populous Adelaide-area seats had as much as 5–10 times the number of voters than the least populous rural seats − at the 1968 election the rural seat of Frome had 4,500 formal votes, while the metropolitan seat of Enfield had 42,000 formal votes. As a result, the Labor opposition won comprehensive majorities of the statewide two-party vote against the LCL whilst failing to form government on three occasions: 1944, 1953, 1962 and 1968. Additionally, with a decisive advantage to the LCL, swing voters may have been more likely to vote for the expected status quo LCL government.

Liberal and Country League
Historic leadersRichard Butler (1932–38),
Thomas Playford (1938–66),
Steele Hall (1966–72),
Bruce Eastick (1972–74)
Founded1932 (1932)
Dissolved1974 (1974)
Preceded byLiberal Federation,
Country Party (SA)
Succeeded byLiberal Party of Australia (SA)

The LCL was succeeded by the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party of Australia in 1974.


The LCL had its roots in the Emergency Committee of South Australia, which ran as the main non-Labor party in South Australia at the 1931 federal election landslide. In the House of Representatives, it took an additional two seats to hold six of the state's seven seats. In the bloc-voting winner-take-all Senate, it took the three seats up for election.

Encouraged by this success, the Liberal Federation (the SA branch of the United Australia Party) and the SA Country Party merged to form the LCL on 9 June 1932, with former Liberal Federation leader Richard Layton Butler as its first leader.

In its first electoral test, the 1933 state election, the LCL took advantage of a three-way split in the state Labor government to win a smashing victory, taking 29 seats versus only 13 for the three Labor factions combined.

Traditionally a socially conservative party, the LCL contained three relatively distinct factions whose ideologies often conflicted:

  • Farmers, graziers and rural property owners.
  • The Adelaide Establishment of old money families and those fortunate enough, through marriage, to have been accepted by the Establishment.
  • The urban middle class, who continued to support the party although they had little say in its running. Indeed, it was not until the election of Robin Millhouse in 1955 that someone from this third faction was elected to parliament. Millhouse, often considered during his term as the most progressive member of the LCL, was eventually expelled in 1973 for his continued criticism of the conservative wing of the party, going on to form the splinter Liberal Movement party with state and federal success.

Parliamentary leaders

It was Playford that the LCL would become synonymous with over his 26 years and 125 days as Premier (a world record for an elected national or regional leader).

LCL in power

The Butler LCL introduced the electoral malapportionment scheme later known as the Playmander in 1936. It consisted of rural districts enjoying a 2-to-1 advantage in the state parliament, even though they contained less than half of the population. The House of Assembly was reduced from 46 members elected from multi-member districts to 39 members elected from single-member electorates.

Even allowing for a smaller chamber, the LCL suffered heavy losses at the 1938 election, winning just 15 of 39 seats. However, Labor picked up only a small number of additional seats. In an unprecedented result, the crossbench swelled massively, with no less than 14 independents elected from a combined independent primary vote of 40 percent, higher than either major party (33 percent for the LCL, 26 percent for Labor). Butler and the LCL had to rely on the crossbench for confidence and supply to remain in government. Only months later, Butler resigned in favour of Playford to make an unsuccessful attempt to enter federal politics. From the 1941 election onward, the Playford LCL would regain and keep a parliamentary majority, albeit narrowly. Additionally, turnout crashed to a record-low 50 percent in 1941, triggering the Playford LCL to introduce compulsory voting from the 1944 election.

During Playford's quarter-century in power, the LCL became so strongly identified with Playford that during election campaigns, it branded itself as "The Playford Liberal and Country League". Playford gave the impression that the LCL membership were there solely to raise money and run election campaigns; his grip on the party was such that he frequently ignored LCL convention decisions. This treatment of rank and file party members continued to cause resentment throughout the party.

This split mirrored the dissatisfaction amongst the Establishment faction, which had been steadily losing its power within the party and was appalled at the "nouveau riche (new money) commoners", such as Millhouse, that had infiltrated the parliamentary wing of the LCL.

At the same time, though, the malapportionment introduced by the Playmander was strong enough to make it extremely difficult for Labor to dislodge the LCL even when Labor won by two-party margins that would have netted them comprehensive victories in other parts of Australia with more equitable electoral systems. In 1944 and 1953, for instance, Labor took 53 percent of the two-party vote, which would have normally been enough to deliver a solid majority for the Labor leader–Robert Richards in 1944 and Mick O'Halloran in 1953. However, on both occasions, the LCL managed to just barely hold onto power. By the 1950s, a number of Labor figures had despaired of ever winning power. O'Halleran, for instance, felt he needed to maintain a cordial relationship with Playford in hopes of getting Labor-friendly legislation through the House of Assembly.

Nonethelesss, the LCL's grip on power began to slip in the 1950s; they would lose seats in every election from 1953 onward. Even at the height of Playford's popularity, the LCL was almost nonexistent in Adelaide, winning almost no seats in the capital outside the wealthy "eastern crescent" and the area around Glenelg and Holdfast Bay. Due to its paper-thin base in the capital, Playford's LCL often won just barely enough seats to govern alone; the party never held more than 23 seats at any time during Playford's tenure. Despite this, the LCL party machine had become moribund as leaders had become lulled into a false sense of security due to the extended run of election wins aided by the Playmander. The LCL was thus caught unawares when O'Halloran's successor as state Labor leader, Frank Walsh, eschewed a statewide campaign in favour of targeting marginal LCL seats.

Walsh's strategy almost paid off at the 1962 election. Labor won a decisive 54.3 percent of the two-party preferred vote to the LCL's 45.7 percent. In the rest of Australia, this would have been enough for a comprehensive Labor victory. However, due to the Playmander, Labor only picked up a two-seat swing, leaving it one short of a majority. The two independents threw their support to the LCL, allowing Playford to remain in office. This election showed how grossly distorted the Playmander had become; by this time, Adelaide accounted for two-thirds of the state's population, but elected only one-third of the legislature.

A year later, the LCL received another jolt with the reformation of a separate Country Party. Although a shadow of its former self, the reformed Country Party served as a wakeup call to Playford that there were problems within the LCL.

LCL fall from power

The LCL lost government for the first time at the 1965 election. Despite winning the same two-party vote as it had three years earlier, the Playmander was strong enough that Labor was only able to win government by two seats. Playford resigned as party leader in 1966 and was succeeded by Steele Hall.

At the 1968 election, Labor won a 53.2 percent two-party vote, but suffered a two-seat swing, resulting in a hung parliament. The lone independent in the chamber, Tom Stott, threw his support to the LCL, allowing it to regain government under Hall. Hall was embarrassed that his party was in a position to win power despite having clearly lost the vote. Concerned by the level of publicity and public protest about the issue, Hall reduced the rural weighting and expanded the lower house from 39 to 47 seats, 28 of which were located in Adelaide. The reforms fell short of "one vote one value", as Labor had demanded, since rural areas were still over-represented. Nonetheless, with Adelaide now electing a majority of the legislature, conventional wisdom held that Hall was effectively handing the premiership to Labor leader Don Dunstan at the 1970 election.

At that election, again with little change in the vote but a very different set of seats, Labor took government with a convincing majority. Hall remained Leader of the Opposition for two years before resigning from the LCL, claiming that the Party had 'lost its idealism [and] forgotten...its purpose for existence'. Bruce Eastick succeeded him as LCL leader.

However, it was Playford's resignation as LCL Leader that acted as the spark for the party's problems to emerge in public spats, culminating in the formation of the Liberal Movement, a socially progressive wing of the LCL that subsequently split from the party.[2] Following the split, the LCL under Eastick changed its official name to "Liberal Party of Australia (South Australian Division)" in 1974 to bring it into line with the federal Liberal Party of Australia, though it had effectively been the state branch of the Liberal Party for three decades prior. The LCL ended its existence in acrimony and in opposition, but having spent 34 of its 42 years in power. Eastick thus became the only LCL leader to have never served as Premier.

One vote one value would be introduced by Labor following the 1975 election where the newly formed Liberal Party won a 50.8 percent two-party vote but fell one seat short of forming government. Labor would regain their vote and majority at the 1977 election, however Dunstan resigned in the months prior to the 1979 election where the Liberals won government for one term.

The last serving parliamentarian from the LCL era, Graham Gunn, retired in 2010; he had been elected in 1970, the next-to-last election that the party fought under the LCL banner.

Results 1933–73

The LCL began in 1932 and ended in 1974. The Playmander began in 1936 and ended after 1968. Two-party-preferred (2PP) figures are not available prior to 1944.

Results 1933–1973
1973 51.52 (26) 39.79 (20) 4.32 4.37 (1) 54.5 45.5
1970 51.64 (27) 43.76 (20) 1.46 3.14 53.3 46.7
1968 51.98 (19) 43.82 (19) 1.03 (1) 3.18 53.2 46.8
1965 55.04 (21) 35.93 (17) 1.88 (1) 7.16 54.3 45.7
1962 53.98 (19) 34.51 (18) 3.15 (2) 8.37 54.3 45.7
1959 49.35 (17) 36.95 (20) 5.93 (2) 7.77 49.7 50.3
1956 47.37 (15) 36.69 (21) 7.34 (3) 8.60 48.7 51.3
1953 50.84 (14) 36.45 (21) 11.10 (4) 1.60 53.0 47.0
1950 48.09 (12) 40.51 (23) 10.07 (4) 1.34 48.7 51.3
1947 48.64 (13) 40.38 (23) 6.20 (3) 4.77 48.0 52.0
1944 42.52 (16) 45.84 (20) 6.64 (3) 5.00 53.3 46.7
1941 33.25 (11) 37.55 (20) 29.20 (8) 0.00
1938 26.16 (9) 33.44 (15) 39.73 (14) 0.66 (1)
1933 27.78 (6) 34.62 (29) 13.41 (3) 24.19 (8)
Primary source: WA Uni – TPP sources: ABC and Professional Historians


  1. Liberal Party of Australia, South Australian Division:
  2. "The 1970s". SA Memory:Past, Present for the Future. 16 May 2007. Archived from the original on 12 November 2009. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
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