Comment: Pro tip to the government - don't forget to use your incumbency

The ALP might be ahead in the polls, but almost all of that is due to Tony Abbott and his office acting as though they are still in opposition.

Over the summer, the ALP would have been feeling quite chipper about its chances to win the next election. The past two weeks however have highlighted that the ALP is a very long way from returning to government – because the government has slowly begun to make use of the advantages of incumbency.

The government’s polls numbers – regardless of the somewhat irrelevant fortnightly shifts in the Newspoll – remain poor, but they are not terminal. The only terminal case in the polls is Tony Abbott himself. Despite what the headlines might have you believe, Abbott did not “rally” in the polls. His net satisfaction rating went from minus 44 to minus 43.

But just because the odds of Tony Abbott leading the Liberal Party to the next election are slim doesn’t mean the chances of the government winning the next election are also weak.

Incumbency is what gets governments over the line – leading the debate and forcing the opposition to play catch up, or worse, seem bereft of ideas. It involves using the entire public service apparatus to your advantage, it involves deciding what will be debated and on what terms the debate will be framed.

Last week we saw signs that the government has remembered this advantage. Yes, Tony Abbott was talking up national security, but his standing is so low that his national security speech this Monday was pretty much all flag, no salute.

He announced nothing shockingly new – and was so full of his favourite stock phrase such as “death cult” that it came across very much as a speech given purely so he could give a speech on an issue he thinks serves his own political interests.

But around him far more important work towards getting the government re-elected was occurring.

It began with Joe Hockey talking up the Intergenerational Report, which is to be released next week. Yes, his rhetoric on the fears of the future was overblown, but it started a new economic narrative, one which has given the government a frame on which to hang policy and policy debate from now till the Budget.

Kelly O’Dwyer last week took up the baton and suggested in a speech to the Centre for Independent Studies that one policy response to the costs of the ageing population might be to include the family home in the means testing for the aged pension.

In an indication of how poorly the government has been at using the power of incumbency, Abbott, Hockey and other ministers quickly stomped on the suggestion. But it was an idea that should have been allowed to flourish. Whether or not it would be a popular policy is to an extent irrelevant – governments are allowed to, and indeed should, talk about contentious policy. Until they start introducing legislation it’s just talk – but it is vital talk as it frames the debate.

The O’Dwyer proposal fit within the economic narrative – had strong support among some economists – and would have forced voters and the media to focus on the problem the government is trying to convince voters exists. It also would have allowed them to reveal in the budget a policy response which would not seem so harsh, but rather a balanced solution.

In this manner we saw the Social Services Minister Scott Morrison release two reports – one on child care and another on welfare spending.

Both had continuous recommendations, but importantly, the government has not yet produced a policy response – instead it is just setting the debate.

The opposition can respond, but it is only a response – the government of the day now looks in control – it is the one telling people what are the issues to care about.  

It is a smart way to do it. Except unfortunately the plans have been upended pretty much whenever Tony Abbott has become involved.

In his national security speech he foolishly suggested that Muslim leaders were not speaking out enough against terrorism, and even implied that when they did speak they didn’t “mean it”.

This not surprisingly annoyed Muslim leaders and rather diminished his position as the “national leader”, and instead made him look partisan. It also meant all week Julie Bishop has had to put out that fire by making great note of the work of the Muslim community.

Also this week Abbott was involved with a dumb policy in which foreign buyers of Australian real estate would have to pay a $5,000 fee to the Foreign Investment Review Board for properties valued under $1 million, and $10,000 for properties valued over $1 million.

It was the type of pointless policy the ALP government occasionally produced when it was worried about “western Sydney”. It won’t stop foreign investment in any way – so is just a bit of dog whistling tokenism. And the motives of appealing to Sydney voters were made pathetically transparent when Abbott and Hockey flew up to Sydney on Wednesday to announce a policy that could just have easily (and cheaply) been done in Parliament House.

In the same vein, Abbott and Attorney General George Brandis foolishly made the story of the Human Rights Commission’s report on the treatment of children in detention more about them than the report. Their treatment of the head of the Human Right Commission, Gillian Triggs – whether or not you think them in the right – meant that was the story rather than the issues in the report or what the report suggested about the ALP’s asylum seeker policy.  

Only by Thursday did Abbott seem to have worked out that ignoring Triggs and focussing on the numbers of asylum seekers in detention now compared to under the ALP was a more winning strategy.

The ALP might be ahead in the polls, but almost all of that is due to Tony Abbott and his office acting as though they are still in opposition. They have neglected to use the power of incumbency. Some government ministers, however seem to have twigged that leading the policy debate is a good way to look in charge – and you don’t need a slogan to do it.

And once the Liberal Party eventually jettison the dead weight of Tony Abbott, they’ll find that more voters will be willing to listen to what they have to say on the issues that they want voters to be listening to. At that point the ALP might realise that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, and when a government acts like an incumbent and uses all the power that provides, it becomes much less likely to lose. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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