The highs and lows of incumbency

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
November 30, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

So the late 90s were a crazy time. People were buying Savage Garden CDs, men were popping Viagra for the first time and those creepy Furbys had just hit toy store shelves. We all made some strange decisions. Mine was to work for the ALP.

A decade on and my career ambitions may have shifted, but fresh-out-of-high-school and with a naive appetite to “shake things up”, Labor seemed to have the answers.

Perhaps it’s my masochistic tendencies, but working in Opposition truly did suit my personality.

Back in the ‘90s, there was Kennett. My own personal Gargamel. The man who closed down local high schools and threatened the jobs of the public servants around me and I was going to bring the scumbag down. Brilliant. Everything you could want in a job.

When you’re in Opposition, the media are only ever agents for good. As an Opposition staffer, you spend your time digging for dirt and the media ring you for it. Salivating. Getting anything in the papers was – nine times out of ten – spectacular, and the small and usually close-knit, underpaid, jack-of-all-trades staffers had a shared goal of toppling evil. Fabulous.

All that changes when you win.

Truth be told, I only lasted a couple of months in the big house. It all became very slick and faux-West Wing and I knew I had to leave before I purchased some sensible court shoes. Indeed, it was my very first lesson of learning to be very careful what you wish for.

Winning government, of course, is a time for celebration. It’s a time to hand out jobs to the faithful, repay favours, in my case nab a letter of recommendation and scamper the hell out.

It’s also a time to do your bloody job. In government, and you have to start delivering. Campaigning and you kissed a lot of babies, cuddled a lot of nannas, sauntered around a lot of wretched food courts. Winning is the time to make it all happen.

The whole thing never really appealed to me.

Running a state is something that can never look cool, can never look hip. The cutting edge parties are always the ones on the sidelines. Nay-saying, heckling and lodging infinite numbers of FOI requests. Those were the days my friends.

But I’d be very hesitant to suggest its Labor that has started to stink. My speculation is that it’s incumbency that’s has the real odour.

I don’t eat meat and I don’t drive, I feel I’ve done enough for the environment and C-words like climate change make me cringe. No, I’ve never voted Green. But I won’t dare pretend that I don’t understand their appeal. Dazzling. And they get the luxury of being as sexy and renegade as they like. Without ever having the burden of putting on a nice pant suit and pretending they’re in the White House. They never have to deliver on promises. Never have to feel that Charlie Bucket-burden of getting everything they ever wanted. An enviable position indeed.

I wrote a book about cheating. A topic I know a little something about. Incumbency and infidelity stir up similar issues.

People cheat for all sorts of reasons. A reason I understand as political scientist – and as someone sporadically sexually active – is that people get bored quickly. In marriage – something TV has taught me plenty about – waking up next to the same person over and over can apparently lose its edge. Something about washing their smalls and dealing with their moods and stubble.

Marriages and governments are always the end result. The culmination of the courting and the kinky offerings and the pledges and the fastidious grooming. Winning government, getting the ring on the finger: where to from here?

The media claim that governments have shelf lives. Use-by dates. I can’t speculate about relationships – the longest I’ve lasted in one where nobody shtups anyone else is three months – but I certainly understand why long-term relationships get betrayed. Not an endorsement, but an understanding.

You’ve met your partner. You’ve fallen in love with them. They can be a million different things to you but never new. They can never be different and you can never ever meet them again for the first time.

No, for Brumby there’s no way for him to bedazzle his loss and smile. But I’m not sure he’s entitled to surprise. It was a very long time ago that I answered his office phone, programmed his mobile phone and opened his letters. A long time in government, a long time looking stable, looking competent, looking like God forbid politicians. That the voters peaked over the fence to covet their neighbour’s ass should leave nobody gob-smacked.

© Lauren Rosewarne