It’s finally happened! After all the speculation, after the incessant cries of ‘Election, now!’ from the Opposition, and the whimpers from the electorate of ‘how long will this never-ending campaign go on, anyway?’, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a date for the 2013 Federal Election.
Put it in your calendar apps, folks: the date is Saturday, September 14, 2013.
(Or, for those of you who still use paper diaries, I’m told there’s this thing called a pen that works without being plugged in and charged! It doesn’t even use the internet! Ahem. But I digress.)
In setting this date, the Prime Minister accomplished several pieces of brilliant political strategy. Some she was happy to foreground, but others snuck in under the radar. So let’s have a close look.
The most obvious – and one she used to tweak the collective nose of the media at the National Press Club – is that it takes away the potential for speculation about the date to be read into every move the government makes. This sort of opinion piece is a staple in the months leading up to an election. With it removed, the government has an opportunity to better force media focus onto issues of substance, rather than whether the PM’s itinerary takes her anywhere near Yarralumla.
The other overt effect is that it pushes the Opposition onto the back foot with regard to costings. As the PM was happy to point out, with such a long lead time before Parliament dissolves and the campaign officially begins, the Coalition has no excuse not to deliver its costings to Treasury and release them to the public. In her own words, ‘No surprises also means no excuses’.
The Coalition has previously claimed that they were not given enough time to submit costings, or that access to Treasury was limited due to election campaign pressures. Now, they will have the May Budget, and more time than any Opposition has had in decades to thoroughly develop, cost and release their policies. Of course, they may try recycling the argument they used in 2010, that Treasury was effectively too corrupt to be trusted with their costings – but that didn’t work too well last time around.
And then there are the covert effects.
Clearly, this date fulfils her promise to Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to ensure her government served its full term – and on that score, the government needs all the help it can get. Both MPs immediately expressed their approval of the date, in interviews shortly after the announcement. Windsor says the PM spoke with them some weeks ago, and agreed there were only a few dates that could realistically be chosen – though he stopped short of saying the decision was made at that time.
While this has little effect on the electorate, it buys her good credit should this election also result in a minority government – and with the rise of minor parties and Independents, that’s a real possibility. It also offsets Labor’s backdown on its promise to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie poker machine regulation. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also endorses the early announcement, as do the Greens. This leaves the Coalition out on a limb. They have to join the chorus of approval – which they will no doubt do grudgingly, suggesting that it’s about time the PM ‘took their advice’, a tactic that will backfire horribly with the public (no one likes those who say ‘I told you so’. If they don’t, they look like hypocrites.
Lastly, there’s possibly the sneakiest effect. The PM went to great lengths to stress that announcing the date was not a de facto campaign launch. ‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign … it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning,’ she said. Now, obviously this is disingenuous; campaigning will be inevitable in the coming months, and anything not actually labelled as a campaign statement will certainly be interpreted as one by both media and the opposing parties. It does, however, give Labor something of a moral high ground, not to mention an excuse not to answer curly election promise questions until after the writs are delivered.
More useful for the government is the probable consequence for the Opposition. The Coalition has already been roundly criticised for conducting what amounts to a non-stop election campaign since the 2010 election, calling for another poll even before the Parliament sat for the first time. On numerous occasions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared that he will not rest until he ‘changes the government’, which he considers illegitimate due to its minority status. In fact, this sentiment underpins virtually every statement the Coalition makes.
It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would stop now. Indeed, this week he launched what he called a ‘mini-campaign’, apparently intended to bolster his falling approval numbers, and undercut any gains Labor might make. Now, he needs to deal with the reality of a fixed election date 227 days away. Given his propensity for hammering home a message ad nauseam (usually while wearing a Hi-Vis vest), and holding a media conference virtually every day, we face the possibility that he will simply step up this activity.
Imagine it. Seven months of election campaigning. Seven months of Abbott recycling slogans like ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Axe the Tax’. Seven months of vicious rhetoric and media stunts.
Sorry about that.
If the government has any intelligent people in its media unit whatsoever, they won’t rise to the bait. They’ll let Abbott have his head, and – to mix a metaphor – he’ll hang himself. People are already tired of the unofficial campaign. The backlash is likely to be devastating in terms of poll numbers.
In one stroke, Labor has rendered the myth of the ‘inevitable 2013 Coalition victory’ powerless. And the Opposition knows it – which may account for its first appalling statements on the election date. It happens to be Yom Kippur, arguably the most important holy day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Coalition wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity go by.
Deeply disappointed that Julia Gillard chose to hold the election on Yom Kippur – the most solemn and sacred day of the Jewish year.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) January 30, 2013
Gillard announces 14 Sept election. That’s Yom Kippur. This disenfranchises many Jewish Australians and is incredibly sloppy work. #npc
— Josh Frydenberg (@JoshFrydenberg) January 30, 2013
See what they did there?
This is amateur hour stuff. See how evil and mean-spirited Labor is! They chose to have an election on a religious holiday! What a terrible thing to do to these poor Australians! We would never do that!
Let’s not forget the ugly side of those tweets, the tacit accusation of anti-Semitism. And every politician knows that labelling your opponent as anti-Jewish has incredible emotional appeal, and can be a real vote-getter.
It’s not even worth arguing about whether Labor is anti-Semitic, whether it’s as good a supporter of Australian Jews (and, by extension, Israel) as the Coalition. That’s just a stupid diversion, and it’s surprising to see Turnbull, in particular, trying on this idiocy. (It remains to be seen if any others will jump on this bandwagon, or whether the Coalition media unit has managed to keep them away from Twitter).
Elections will always be a problem for someone. Maybe they’ll fall on religious holy days (and when was the last time you heard a politician complain about any other religion’s being inconvenienced). Maybe it’ll be the AFL Grand Final. Maybe you’re flying to Bali that day, or stuck in floodwaters or in hospital. None of that should present an obstacle to your fulfilling your duty as a citizen of this country. It’s really very simple.
We have early and postal voting in this country.
That’s right. We can participate in our democratic process and live our lives. Amazing, isn’t it?
That the Coalition would even consider this sort of strategy is ridiculous. It shows how unprepared they were for the announcement of the election date. One imagines that even now, their media unit is busy shredding Abbott’s prepared speech for his appearance tomorrow at the National Press Club, and frantically scribbling.
It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I’m fairly sure he won’t mention Yom Kippur – but the damage is done.
In the meantime, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. We know when the sausage sizzles will be.