Four weeks ago, I published a post speculating on when the election might be held.
You can read the post here. In it, I speculated on the possibility that Gillard could announce the election date sometime around Australia Day.
In essence, I felt that the election date options were fairly limited. I never thought there was any possibility of an early election in the first half of the year. November was a bridge too far. Assuming an election in August, September or October, it seemed to me there were only a couple of real possibilities.
Whatever date Gillard had in mind, it seemed clear that the year would be dominated by election speculation at every turn.
What would really shake-up political thinking would be a surprise announcement of an election date at the beginning of 2013. There are few precedents for this, although New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, gave similar advance notice of his election in 2011, albeit for different reasons.
I explained some of my thinking in an interview with SBS this afternoon:
In the end, I felt that September 7 or 14 were the most likely election dates, although I opted for mid-October on the basis that the government faces almost certain defeat and you may as well eke out as much time as you can without choosing a date so late that you look utterly desperate.
The more I thought about it, the more I believed that a government on the ropes needs to do something to change the political mood. For months now, the Gillard government has stepped up its attack on Tony Abbott. Whether it was the misogyny speech last October, or the continual allegations of negativity and the demand for Abbott to produce detailed policies, it was obvious where the government’s campaign was heading.
Some see this anti-Abbott campaign as sound politics. It has more than a touch of the 1993 election about it. Twenty years ago, Paul Keating was regarded as an almost certain loser. The country was in the grip of recession, the government was ten years old and John Hewson appeared to be on his way to The Lodge.
In the end, the electorate baulked at change. Keating’s ferocious attack on the proposed 15% Goods and Services Tax undoubtedly changed votes. The Coalition’s Fightback! package contained other policies which aroused fears in the minds of the electorate, especially about Medicare and industrial relations. On election day, there was a swing to the government and it increased its majority. To this day, John Hewson makes wry jokes about Fightback! as the longest political suicide note in history.
It is obvious that the Gillard government would like to see itself in a similar position to Keating and hopes to survive the election on the back of an anti-Abbott campaign and the concept of a government of ideas getting on with the people’s business. Today’s election announcement is all about advancing Gillard’s theme of “getting the job done”. Over the Christmas-New Year break, she has been at pains to stress her “determination” to “get the big things done”. Statements by Gillard and Swan over the past couple of weeks have given some indication of their campaign strategy.
The strategy is best summed up in Gillard’s words at the National Press Club today:
We must get on with the business of governing and an election must be held.
In that order.
Governing first, electioneering second.
But electioneering won’t easily be relegated to second place. And Gillard is no Keating.
Time will tell. For the moment, the government has the initiative. But as February passes into March and Autumn fades into Winter, the story might be different. The certainty of the election date could lead to a form of election ennui in the electorate. The media will look for colour and movement to fill seven months of election coverage.
And events will intervene. At some point, the so-called political hardheads will condemn Gillard for giving up her prime ministerial advantage in determining election timing. It’s always hard to tell how sincere Grahame Morris is in his media commentaries, but John Howard’s former Chief of Staff seemed appalled this afternoon at the thought that Gillard had surrendered control over the election date. He insisted this is a strategy devised by amateurs.
It may well be that the election announcement will be seen as the ultimate example of Tony Abbott messing with the minds of his opponents. Abbott induces a curious combination of fear, contempt and dismissiveness amongst his political enemies. He confounds most people in the media. Significantly, he hasn’t rushed to respond today. His response at the Press Club tomorrow and in the months ahead will be one of the more interesting features of this election campaign.
There seems little doubt that Gillard has never been more comfortable in her role as ALP leader and prime minister than she is at this moment. There is a clear sense of a strategy that may minimise the scale of the looming defeat. It may even deliver victory.
But today’s announcement could just be a desperate act by a doomed government to engage an electorate that already knows what it is going to do on election day.