Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 11:57 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 11:57 | SYDNEY

The election without an incumbent


Graeme Dobell

20 July 2010 09:00

The foreign affairs dimensions of Australia's election will rest on personalities and the past as well as the predictions offered in declared policies.

The past is the foundation for large areas of bipartisan agreement for significant areas of foreign policy. Here stand the monoliths such as engagement with Asia and the US alliance. These are the givens, the enduring elements of past policy that will continue.

Thank goodness for the stability of these policy monoliths. With personalities, the voters are being driven dizzy.

One of the constants of Australian politics has been the lore that the electorate punishes parties which suffer leadership instability. The voters like to have some idea of the personality as well as the policies of the leaders they are judging. On that basis, the thinking at the start of the year was that the Coalition should be facing disaster, because it is on its fifth leader in less than three years.

John Howard was deposed at the 2007 election and on the night of his loss anointed Peter Costello as the new leader. The next day Costello declined the job. Two leaders gone in two days. Brendan Nelson stepped up and was run down by Malcolm Turnbull. Then Turnbull was shredded for not understanding the party he was supposed to head.

Facing Tony Abbott as leader number five, the habits of Australian politics said the first term Labor Government should have pumped up its leader and ladled out the incumbency benefits for a stroll to the polls. Then Labor started to look at Kevin Rudd and ask a tremulous question in ever louder tones: surely he couldn't blow it from here? The fearful answer caused caucus to blow up its Prime Minister. Labor is thus on its third leader in less than four years. And beheading a Prime Minister is surely the equivalent of rolling over a couple of Opposition Leaders.

On the character front, huge question marks loom on both sides of the political ledger. Which side will the voters kick hardest for this level of personality uncertainty? Rudd as Prime Minister was also the über Foreign Minister, so decapitating 'The Kevin' meant Labor discarded the foreign policy advantage he held over Abbott and many of the benefits of incumbency.

As well as giving up the incumbent advantage in foreign affairs, Labor has done the same in defence. Two Defence Ministers in one term is not a good look. Defence exploded under Joel and John is departing exhausted. Defence becomes another incumbency vacuum for the Government. Over many years, the voters had got a rough fix on John Faulkner, the straight man with the Clark Kent jaw and glasses to match. Anyone who loved cricket as much as he loved the Labor Party obviously had a balanced view of life. 

So now, no über Foreign Minister and no incumbent Defence Minister.

In the political contest of the coming days, Labor has lost much of its personality dominance in foreign affairs and defence. That doesn't mean the Coalition will necessarily win the argument, but certainly the natural international policy advantages usually wielded by governments have evaporated.

Photo by Flickr user vfowler, used under a Creative Commons license.