03/10/2006 - 22:00

Trend towards incumbency

03/10/2006 - 22:00


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State Scene first met one-time Labor Goldfields federal MP, Graeme Campbell, back when Bob Hawke was prime minister.

Trend towards incumbency

State Scene first met one-time Labor Goldfields federal MP, Graeme Campbell, back when Bob Hawke was prime minister.

We’d arranged to meet at Perth domestic airport to discuss several burning issues.

Precisely which year I’ve forgotten. But it was certainly in the lead-up to a federal election.

When reaching that subject Mr Campbell said: “Of course, you know who’s going to win the election, don’t you?”

I initially thought this may be a trick question, so replied somewhat cautiously: “Not really, but I suspect it’ll be you guys.”

To which he responded: “It’s definitely going to be the incumbents - most of those now sitting in Parliament will definitely be returned.

“In fact the next Parliament will be almost identical – except for a tiny handful of members – to the current one.”

And, of course, he was absolutely correct. Genius has been defined as seeing the obvious, and what Mr Campbell had said was, after hearing him say it, immediately obvious.

Apart from the few MPs who’d opted to retire that year, and some holding marginal seats, very little changed at that poll.

Nearly all incumbents were returned.

That, to use that over-used phrase, is “how the cookie crumbles”, since most of the time most of those who win seats are those who already hold them – the incumbents.

What are called landslide elections rarely occur.

To take this a step further: most of the time, the parties that win elections are those in power.

State Scene highlights this little appreciated fact because WA Democrat Senator Andrew Murray has kindly forwarded a research paper recently presented at a parliamentary seminar titled, “Incumbency Dominance: An Unhealthy Trend?”

Its author is Monash University politics researcher, Dr Paul Strangio.

However, before considering some of his points, it’s worth noting that in Sweden, which recently changed ruling parties, that country’s Social Democrats – roughly akin to the Australian Labor Party – have governed alone or in coalition for 65 of the last 74 years.

Incumbency in Sweden thus reigns pretty well supreme.

Although not as extreme in Australia, it also prevails.

“The average incumbency federally is 11 years and six months; while for the states, the corresponding figures are: Queensland nearly 15 years; New South Wales a little over 13 years; Victoria nearly 11 years; South Australia just short of eight years; and Western Australia and Tasmania trailing a little behind at roughly 7.5 years,” Dr Strangio said.

“In other words, once elected, governments are usually guaranteed tenure equivalent to at least two electoral cycles, with ‘oncers’ very much the exception in all jurisdictions.

“The only cases in the past two decades are the Field Government in Tasmania, 1989-92, and the Borbidge Government in Queensland, 1996-98.”

Dr Strangio puts these averages into wider historical context by pointing out that before the 1970s, Australia’s “political landscape had seemed to freeze over”, by which he meant that for some time there had existed several well entrenched governments that kept on keeping on.

“The post-war era springs to mind, with the Menzies hegemony having coincided with the age of the so-called ‘boss’ premiers in the states, when the likes of Henry Bolte in Victoria, Thomas Playford in South Australia and Eric Reece in Tasmania appeared to become institutionalised in office,” he said.

Furthermore, we seem to be in a “freeze over” presently with the Howard Government having been returned three times and each State Labor Government regained power at least once.

And territory elections have also been a bonanza for incumbents, with Labor’s Jon Stanhope and Clare Martin for the ACT and NT respectively having also been easily returned.

“Taken together, these figures clearly paint a picture of prospering incumbents,” Dr Strangio said.

“Australia is currently enjoying an economic growth cycle that has extended for some 15-years.

 “While there is considerable variation in the budgetary positions of the states, the cumulative years of economic growth have generally meant that governments have had ample financial reserves from which to draw to offer sweeteners to the public, especially during election years.

“We need look no further than the 2002 and 2004 federal elections for evidence of this; on both occasions the Howard Government has spent prodigiously to shore up its support stocks.”

Dr Strangio said a claim gaining acceptance is that Australians feel comfortable with conservative-controlled Canberra overseeing foreign affairs, defence and economic management, while states and territories - which largely oversee pre-tertiary education, hospitals and police - are in Labor’s hands.

“The discrepancy in voting behaviour is especially stark in Queensland, where Labor holds 71 per cent of Legislative Assembly seats but only 21 per cent of the state’s House of Representatives seats,” he said.

“Whether by conscious calculation or intuition, voters are hedging their bets in something of a variation of the ‘split ticket’ phenomenon, whereby some electors, desirous of the check and balance provided by governments not controlling both houses of parliament, vote one way in the House of Representatives  and another in the Senate, a notion dented but not exploded by the 2004 result.”

Dr Strangio highlights a series of not to be overlooked reasons for incumbent dominance, with one of the most significant being that all ministers today shield themselves with what he dubs the “human armoury of incumbents”.

This refers to the cohorts of advisers, expert boffins, spin doctors and so-called “junk-yard attack dogs” on their growing staffs, some of whom are there to find “dirt” on opponents be they first time challengers or other MPs.

The last time taxpayer-funded “attack dogs” were highlighted nationally was when former Labor leader Mark Latham held a press conference claiming the Liberals were digging deep into his and his family’s past, which State Scene has absolutely no doubt was so.

More recently in Victoria, a top ministerial adviser foolishly lost an incriminating notebook that revealed a Labor “attack dog” was “devising plans for digging information on the private financial interests of the newly-appointed opposition leader, Ted Baillieu.

“These activities might sound rather pedestrian, but they exemplify the twin modus operandi of the ministerial staffer: that of loyal defender of, and attack dog for, the executive,” says Dr Strangio.

But “attack dogs” have now become a protected species.

This was done by John Howard who has ensured they cannot be brought to book for, as the 2001 Children Overboard Affairs showed, he and his ministers blocked permitting such so-called advisers appearing before the Senate Committee that inquired into that deception.

“By the time the Whitlam Government was defeated in 1975, its ministerial staff ranks had expanded to nearly 200, though many were seconded from within departments,” Dr Strangio said.

“The growth in advisers was renewed during the Hawke-Keating Labor years, climbing towards 300 by the early 1990s.

“Recent figures indicate the number of ministerial staff is now in the vicinity of 450, with the coalition government also employing a record number of departmental liaison officers, some 71.

“The 100 per cent plus increase in ministerial staff since the Whitlam era is mirrored in the doubling of the number of staff employed in the prime minister’s office: it was about 20 under Whitlam, while Howard’s private office boasts around 40 members.

“The cost of employing the Howard Government’s ministerial and liaison staff is running at about $52 million per annum.

“Not only have numbers increased but the functions of ministerial staff have diversified and their authority grown.

“If originally conceived as ‘policy wonks’, they now fulfil a variety of functions including interface with the public service, media and relevant stakeholders, as well as helping to drive the strategies and tactics of permanent political campaigning.”

Dr Strangio considers several other measures designed to favour those already in power, including the huge general postal allowance MPs get to bombard voters before elections with costly and useless propaganda bumph.

Those wishing to read Dr Strangio’s entire paper, something that’s worth doing, can contact Senator Murray’s office.

State Scene is confident either he or a staffer will email you a copy.


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