The age of incumbency: Do bad oppositions keep themselves out of power, or does being out of power make oppositions bad?

Ken’s excellent post below on Sydney water contains this statement.

Bad governments exist in part because of even worse oppositions, and New South Wales is currently very poorly served by both major parties.

I think we’re seeing a new age of incumbency. Its produced to a large extent by sustained economic prosperity. In the 1950s and 60s and early 70s we had the Menzies Government at the federal level and long periods of incumbency for Governments like those of Playford, Bolte and Askin to name a few.

But I think the current age of incumbency also reflects the commoditisation of politics for several reasons. Poltical parties have much weaker bases in the community than they once did. This and the sickness (though not quite death) of ideological differences means that day to day politics is focused mainly on media management and Governments have a huge advantage over Oppositions in this area because they can make or frame most of the political news and oppositions find it exceptionally difficult to do anything but react.

And then there’s the growing abuse of incumbency with political advertising and the use of government to assist fundraising. In addition to the brazen political feelgood advertising begun by Paul Keating and continued with gusto by John Howard and state Premiers, there are also the fund raising advantages of incumbency. The ALP’s ‘Progressive Business’ has just organised Melburne Commonwealth Games parties where business can pay through the nose for access to the atheletes and of course Government politicians.

I suspect causation runs at least as much in the opposite direction as the direction that Ken is suggesting. That is being out of government reduces the perceived quality of your political performance and long periods of failure diminish the attractiveness of politics to those who might otherwise get into the game. So there’s a vicious circle where oppositions go downhill, fail to renew themselves and fall into bitter squabbling over the spoils of opposition. Examples include the Federal Liberals under the Hawke/Keating Government and the ALP under Howard’s Government. There are plenty of good analogues in the states.

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Andrew Leigh
17 years ago

My guess is that the new “age of incumbency” is merely a result of the boom. We know from work by Jackman, Cameron & Crosby, Leigh & Wolfers, etc. that governments are more likely to be turfed out when the economy turns sour.

David Walker
17 years ago

I think that most of this is right. Ideological differences are shrinking, which brings increased stability to politics. Brazen feelgood advertising is having an effect. The economic boom is removing obvious reasons to boot governments out.

And it is clearly true that being out of government reduces the perceived quality of your political performance. Politicians look smarter in government than in opposition. John Howard, Jeff Kennett, Alexander Downer and John Brumby are all classic examples of politicians frequently bemoaned in opposition but now hailed as top performers.

However, I am less sure that being out of government for long periods reduces the attractiveness of politics. Just as frequently it seems to create space for new players. The obvious case here is the rejuvenation of federal Labor after 1975.

A more important factor in creating a vigorous group of politicians within a party may be a motivating grievance or ideological battle. In the post-1975 ALP, Whitlam’s sacking provided this. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Liberal Party, student unionism did the same.

It may also help that our political class is actually pretty good. Compare our state and federal political leadership with that of the US, and rejoice.

17 years ago

I think that’s pretty much spot on too Nick. Not mention the incumbent’s advantage in being able set polling dates at least at the Federal level.

I’d add however that recent Australian Governments have been tripped up by electorate fatigue and perceptions of arrogance. Eg: the ALP losing the 1996 election even though the economy was on the rebound and Jeff getting the boot despite an accelerating Victorian economy.

And good point too David about having an energetic cadre of new talent to revitalise the party. What can we look forward for the future here as a catalyst? IR?

david tiley
17 years ago

Nabs – and a lost war. And a worsening climate. And a verrrrry interesting refugee problem from Iraq. And the implosion of our education policy. Maybe that last one is wishful thinking.