Premier Lewis Loses Seat: a Tasmanian Precedent
Tasmanian politics has many political precedents and recent memory may recall one concerning R. G. 'Bob' Cheek. To date Cheek is the only Leader of the Opposition to lose his seat at an election (2002). However, another important precedent exists. In 1903 Premier Sir Elliott Lewis lost his single-Member seat of Central Hobart at the General Election held on Thursday 2 April - just missing April Fool's Day! Unparalleled as this loss is, in fact all three Ministers in the House of Assembly were defeated: namely, Lewis (Premier) Stafford Bird (Treasurer) and Edward Mulcahy (Lands & Works). The other Cabinet Minister (G. T. Collins) was in the Legislative Council and so did not face re-election. The fifth Cabinet Minister F. W. Piesse retired from the Legislative Council in 1901 and was elected to the House of Representatives.
Sir N. E. Lewis
Lewis' parliamentary career
In 1886 Neil Elliott Lewis - then a prominent lawyer - convincingly won the House of Assembly seat of Richmond and thereafter was elected unopposed five times between 1891 and 1900. His first term of office as Premier began on 12 October 1899 and he was knighted in 1902. However, at the 1903 poll Lewis attempted to switch seat's to Central Hobart. This move from a rural to an urban seat was unpopular, and combined with a negative campaign against the government, saw Lewis fail to be elected. However, after another failed bid in 1906 Lewis successfully returned to Parliament in April 1909 as one of five representatives for Denison. Resuming his parliamentary career, he topped the poll for Denison in 1909, 1912 and 1913 before 'slipping' to second in 1916 and 1919. He retired before the June 1922 election, but before this his later terms of office as Premier were 19 June - 20 October 1909, and after a brief hiatus as Leader of the Opposition he served as Premier again from 27 October 1909 - 14 June 1912. That is, while Lewis holds a unique precedent for losing his seat, only he and Sir Walter Lee have served as Premier of Tasmania on three occasions.
W. B. Propsting
R. C. Patterson
Election statistics aside, the Mercury wrote that the results of the 1903 poll were of a 'surprising kind', although adding that 'electors showed on the whole, a sturdy independence highly creditable to them.' At this poll Tasmania experienced its first statewide election, and for the first time a newly-structured Opposition ran a compressive negative campaign against the Government. After which the Mercury concluded that the Premier's defeat was the 'crowning event of a remarkable day' because 17 of the 35 Members - recently reduced from 38 - had not been elected previously. The Examiner reported that when the news of the three Ministerial defeats was posted outside its Launceston offices the 'measure of joy of the crowd was full and the signal for great rejoicing.' In Hobart, having defeated Lewis, Herbert Nicholls was 'cheered lustily' and driven through the streets in an open carriage. Yet when accepting victory in front of 300 spectators Nicholls said that he was 'truly sorry my success is at the expense of Sir Elliott Lewis.' The latter remarked that he was 'leaving public life', but 'whether temporarily or permanently is for fate to decide.' We know that he went on to resume an illustrious parliamentary career.
Meantime, Opposition Leader William Bispham Propsting set another precedent at this poll by being the first to take an election 'platform' to the people. Yet while G. T. Collins still sat in the Upper House, not a single Member of the Cabinet survived in the Lower House. So unusual was this occurrence that in-coming Premier Propsting initially asked Lewis to remain in office until after Easter (Good Friday was 9th April) and even represent Tasmania at a Premier's Conference, but dropped the idea when it was criticised as a 'serious mistake.' Relieved of office, Lewis went to Sydney on a holiday, and Propsting held a late night meeting on 8th April to determine his new Cabinet, within which Nicholls became Attorney-General. Cabinet was sworn in at 3.30 p.m. on 9th April and Propsting immediately sailed for the Premiers Conference (also in Sydney).
Parliament was convened on 21st May but adjourned on 25th until 18th August to give Propsting's new Cabinet time to formulate a budget. Moreover, the Opposition had only just managed to get Robert Charles Patterson to agree to act as 'temporary' Leader of the Opposition. He eventually served from May 1903 to March 1904 before retiring because of ill health.