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Incumbency is king

By Peter Tucker - posted Thursday, 6 July 2006

It is a political irony of our time that, at the federal level, the conservatives do well and Labor poorly, while in state parliaments it is the reverse.

An irony it may be, but surprising it is not. In these times of strong economic growth, voters simply do not want to upset the applecart. Incumbency is king.

Last November Glenn Milne in The Australian (“Liberals facing a cascade of state defeats” November 21, 2005) predicted that the Liberals were facing a “cascade of state defeats” and since then we have already seen Labor returned in both South Australia and Tasmania. Elections to come over the next 12 months in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, to varying degrees, look like confirming Milne’s prediction.


To test the power of incumbency, it is instructive to see how two “bad news” stories for Labor have played out in my home state of Tasmania: one for the state government and one for the federal opposition.

For the state Labor Party, the events leading up to the sale of the TT Line’s Spirit III have been described by some as a scandal. The question is, will there be long-term political damage to the Labor Government?

Probably not, if recent history is any teacher.

There are three key reasons why incumbency means Tasmanian State Labor should be able to navigate out of this one.

First, to many voters, political scandal is only so much “noise”. Studies of voter habits show that a majority have little interest in politics, do not follow stories in any detail and generally have a low opinion of politicians. So, one group of politicians is accusing the other group of a cover-up or taking political advantage? Really? What’s new? These types of news items are not “barbeque stoppers” to pinch a phrase from John Howard.

On issues of impropriety or scandal, voters appear not to judge incumbent government as harshly as those closer to politics - the journalists, commentators, analysts and politicians themselves - do.


The average voter tires of a scandal much more quickly than the pundits. In particular, yarns that rely on “who said what, when and to whom” (like the AWB “scandal”) glaze the eyes more quickly than your uncle’s holiday snaps.

The lesson for opposition politicians and journalists is, unless you have something really big to add, stop beating the story up: the public will have moved on.

Second, with big-ticket stories like the Spirit III sale that involve millions of dollars, it is hard for the public to relate these figures to their own hip pockets. Issues that really bite are those that affect the ebb and flow of the weekly pay packet: interest rates, tax, house prices and school fees, for example.

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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s School of Government.

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