Pre-Television Election Media: Australia Votes

Many Australians of a certain age remember Gough Whitlam’s It’s Time election campaign of 1972. It changed the nature of political advertising in this country. Fast forward to 2011, and digital media is a standard part of campaigns, as in many countries. These days the ubiquity and professionalised nature of campaign advertising is taken for granted.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes had an appreciation for the importance of the new medium of film, as this 1916 ad for the Conscription Referendum shows (NFSA: 11060)

But spinning the democratic process is not a new phenomenon. Well before the advent of television, politicians were massaging the media. For almost 100 years election campaign advertising has contributed to political debate, and our knowledge of Australian politics.

I am one of the 2011 NFSA’s SAR Research Fellows and, since I arrived here in mid-September, I have been immersing myself in the NFSA’s holdings of Australian election campaign media. I have restricted my initial search to pre-1956 advertisements for elections and referenda, up to the advent of television in Australia in 1956. So far I have identified over 80 items in these categories, including advertisements from 1916 – glass slides, cartoons and silent films.

Absentee candidate: Melbourne Argus, 19 May 1925, p 11

This article from the Melbourne Argus (19 May 1925, p. 11) explains an early instance of active political propaganda from certain members of the Australian film industry. Courtesy of National Library of Australia

Many early campaign ads lacked technical and artistic sophistication, but like all media, increased in their production values as time marched on. Highlights include an advertisement featuring the first two women elected to the Australian Parliament, Senator Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons (listen to Senator Dorothy Tangney: Maiden Speech, 1944, and Dame Enid Lyons: Maiden Speech, 1943), and a 1922 advertisement featuring Thomas ‘Lemonade’ Ley, politician and murderer.

One 1925 advertisement was, thoughtfully, produced by a filmmaker whilst his friend the candidate was overseas – an item which demonstrates the early connections between Australian politicians and the media, a comfortable arrangement which continues to this day.

Not all the ads are so controversial, however. In terms of production and content, a distinct pattern strongly emerges. It shows, although updated with the changing times, just how important the media is as a central link between parties and voters.

President Truman and Prime Minister Chifley as featured in a 1946 ALP advertisement

International relations: this image of US President Harry S.Truman (left) and Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley at work in Washington, illustrates an important task for an incoming Prime Minister – ‘giving Australia a major place amongst the nations of the world’ – from the 1946 Labor Party advertisement In the Wake of the Storm (NFSA: 32513)

Political advertising has always provided an opportunity for candidates to communicate to voters in a totally controlled manner, and this project illustrates the power of the media to transmit the symbols that frame our understanding of politics.

These advertisements record the changing political, social and cultural landscape of Australia, as well as bring new insights into the workings of the media machine. They give us a visual history of the signifying practices of Australian democracy, components of popular memory that reflect and shape our culture. I hope that my work here at the NFSA will result in more of these advertisements being available to researchers and the public to view. Examining these advertisements reveals much about the relationship between the media, the government machine and the electorate, of shifting notions of the public sphere, of visions of citizenship, and of political participation and inclusiveness.



A very interesting and important study. I will follow with interest.

Jimboswell on 28 Oct 2011, 2:12 p.m.

This is really exciting to read about Lisa, what a terrific project. I'm curious to know a bit more about the patterns that you see emerging in this early history of political communication, and whether you're finding any early instances of audience reactions to the campaigns run through cinemas?

Kate Bowles on 28 Oct 2011, 2:18 p.m.

Being of "that certain age", I remember the "It's time" campaign. As a young Labour voter, it was thrilling to see the support by popular media figures. With the dominance of the 24 hour news cycle, personal political courage seems to have deserted the public affairs arena. This makes your study and recording of political history of advertising that much more important.

carolyn peddie on 28 Oct 2011, 7:21 p.m.

Hi Lisa,
A very interesting project and your research to date sounds brilliant. I wonder how the element of "fear" in political campaigns has changed over the years. In the 40's and 50's the fear factor was communism, but I am sure there would have been other instances of this element in lots of other campaigns. The "It's Time" campaign was mostly a very positive one, without much of the fear factor there. I'm not sure if this will be what you will be looking at, but thought I'd ask about it anyway.
Thanks for the great blog.

sylvia rapley on 31 Oct 2011, 2:26 p.m.

1. Thanks Jim – I am presenting a paper on my time at the NFSA at the Southern Cross University at Coffs Harbour campus on 15 November, and everyone is welcome to attend. Feel free to contact me on for the details.
2. Hello Kate, and thanks for your interest in my project. I am certainly seeing a pattern emerging, which generally follows that of current campaigns – general trends of personality over policy, lack of policy detail in the ads (as one would expect due to their brevity) and an emphasis on negativity. As for the audience study side of this, yes, it would be really interesting to look at this, although particularly for the early spots there is not much evidence remaining. When I get to analysing the later spots (ie television and internet) of course there will be more evidence available for me.
3. Carolyn, thanks for your comments – I certainly agree that the recording and analysis of this aspect of our media and political history is important.
4. Hello Sylvia – you are absolutely correct. Negative advertising is a traditional characteristic of Australian electioneering (as in many democracies), and on our screens, has been around for as long as the ads have been made – in 1923, one ad depicted the opposition as a headless donkey that was in the hands of big business; whilst a 1925 ad provided the threat that voting for the opposition would bring ‘the Reds’ into ‘White Australia’. Other ads blame the ‘parties that have failed you’, the previous government that is made responsible for the dire predicament in one area of life or another.

Lisa Milner on 09 Nov 2011, 10:53 a.m.

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