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It’s been a year for incumbents in Australia but the political contests are coming back to life

Peter Lewis
·4-min read
<span>Composite: Brook Mitchell/Quinn Rooney/Getty Images</span>
Composite: Brook Mitchell/Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Election wins in the national capital and across the Tasman over the weekend are being celebrated as affirmations of the victors’ progressive political agendas. Without taking the zing off the parties, there’s a more a basic reading of the results: this is a moment for incumbents.

Through a time of global instability, leaders who deploy the resources of the state with even a modicum of competence to support their people through the duel health and economic crises have received strong endorsement.

Related: Essential poll: majority still approve of Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews

Granted, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have set the competence bar so low that merely acting on health advice represents strong and decisive leadership, but across Australia federal and state politics approval of government is proving remarkably resilient.

The strength of the government’s position federally is on display with the release of our quarterly voting intention results, where the government has maintained a majority of support in all polls apart from one taken in mid-September.

If a federal election was held tomorrow, to which party would you give your first preference vote in the House of Representatives (lower house)?
Two-party-preferred (2PP+)

Looking at these numbers as a series, rather than jumping poll to poll, there is a remarkable consistency. While the government has maintained higher support, the federal opposition has remained in touch by playing a consciously constructive role.

Indeed, it’s noteworthy that two weeks after the federal budget and the budget in reply, both government and opposition have landed towards the top of their range for the quarter. When the spotlight has turned to the leaders, the public seems to have engaged rather than recoiled.

This strength in incumbency is reinforced in our latest state numbers, which show support for both the New South Wales and Victorian premiers standing up despite incredibly rugged weeks. Meanwhile the Queensland premier heads towards the polls in a dominant position, while we have put out a search warrant for those who disapprove of the Western Australian premier.

Do you approve or disapprove of the job your state premier is doing?

But as the end of year looms, there is a palpable change in dynamic. At both states and federal level – and indeed between those layers of government – the political contests seem to be coming back to life.

As Victoria moves out of lockdown any semblance of joint purpose that was embodied in the National Cabinet seems to have collapsed. The NSW premier is fighting for her future, and the PM is leaning into the impending Queensland election.

Underpinning this return to normal transmission is a genuine contest of ideas that is slowly but surely taking form.

The federal government has bet the recovery on tax cuts and incentives in business to invest in plant and people in the hope that this will spark much-needed activity to get the economy moving again.

Of course, the tax cuts have had a positive initial response (when is cash ever unwelcome?) but the real test will be over the coming months when people decide whether to spend the extra dollars or bank them and whether businesses are really in growth (as opposed to survival) mode.

In contrast, Labor’s economic agenda is more expansive: strategically invest in industries such as early learning, renewables and social handing where there is a social need and a jobs dividend. More bubble up than trickle-down economics.

Sitting on the horizon, significant tax cuts to the very rich are scheduled for 2024, which if reversed would deliver Labor an eye-watering war chest as well as a compelling point of difference.

And for once, Labor’s lack of incumbency may well be an advantage. Because as the world heads into an economic downturn, voters are sending the strong message that the time for political accountability is fast approaching.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about the recent federal budget and the direction for the country to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic?

The second line on this chart is particularly telling – the vast majority of Australians for the first time demands there are consequences to the choices being made. And with those consequences lies accountability.

That’s the truth at the heart of the dominance of the “competent incumbent” in 2020. There was no alternative. The situation was unprecedented. All our leaders could do was their best and when we made mistakes we wanted them to learn and would move on.

But now we enter a new phase where governments will live or die by the success or otherwise of their economic response to the crisis. Incumbency may be about to get a whole lot harder.

• Peter Lewis is executive director of Essential Media. He will discuss this week’s results with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday