The new New South Wales opposition leader, John Robertson, today presents his shadow ministry, with 15 members to face the 22-member O’Farrell cabinet. The official announcement is yet to be made as I write, but today’s Sydney Morning Herald has a pretty complete account — and with such a depleted caucus to choose from, the scope for surprises is limited.

Linda Burney is to take over from Carmel Tebbutt as deputy leader (Tebbutt will remain on the front bench in the education portfolio), while former police minister and leadership hopeful Michael Daley becomes shadow treasurer. Kristina Keneally and former treasurer Eric Roozendaal retire to the backbench.

Three upper house MPs are new to the front bench, and Luke Foley — also from the upper house, but probably more famous now as Labor’s face on the ABC election night telecast — is promoted to environment spokesman.

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With Labor having lost 60% of its lower house seats, the upper house inevitably takes a greater weight in the parliamentary party.

Four years ago, the Labor caucus had 71 members — 19 in the council and 52 in the assembly. It’s now down to 14 and 20 respectively. But the balance of experience has shifted even more, since only 14 of its lower house members were sitting MPs; the others have replaced members who bowed out before the election (one of them, Robertson himself, transferring from the council).

It’s become commonplace to observe that the power of incumbency in Australian politics has been growing over the past couple of decades.

Incumbent governments, especially early in their terms, seem to be getting harder to dislodge, and sitting MPs with their ever-increasing staff and resources seem to have more and more of an advantage over their challengers.

An interesting aspect of the NSW election was to see if this sort of advantage would still hold up with a government that was 16 years old and — not to put too fine a point on it — as discredited as governments ever get. Surprisingly enough, it seems that to some extent it did.

With a two-party-preferred swing of about 16%, the pre-election pendulum would have shown Labor losing 34 seats (plus Penrith and Ryde, which had already gone in byelections). In fact it “only” lost 30: several key seats, among them Macquarie Fields, Marrickville, Toongabbie and Wallsend, held out due to swings below the state average.

The pattern of those swings was also interesting. Having seen the writing on the wall, an unusually large number of Labor MPs decided not to contest their seats (Antony Green has a list).

One might have thought that MPs who stubbornly held on would have been punished more severely by the electorate than the fresh candidates brought in to replace retirees.

In fact, the opposite happened: the average swing against sitting Labor members was about 3% less than the swing in Labor seats without one. Of the seats that stood out against the trend, only Cessnock did not have an incumbent MP.

Now it’s true the causality in this might not be quite what it seems.

Maybe some MPs retired because they thought they were facing above-average swings, while the ones who thought their prospects were better than average were more inclined to stay.

But it’s at least some indication that even in the depths of unpopularity plumbed by the NSW ALP, incumbency still counts as a plus.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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