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The longest election campaign ever?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 1 February 2013


We must be a nation that responds to sporting records, for the common reaction in the media to the Prime Minister's announcement of the 14 September election date was that it was 'unprecedented', and that we would have 'the longest election campaign ever'. That she announced the date so far ahead was certainly unusual but, as Mr Abbott made clear, the Coalition was already campaigning. And Labor's rapid endorsement of Nova Peris in the Northern Territory, about which I wrote yesterday, was a sign that things were hotting up.

What difference does an early announcement of the election date make? There have already been calls for fixed-term federal parliaments, on the ground that such an early announcement is the way things ought to be. Since neither major party is at all interested in such a change, that one is only for the convinced - though it is perfectly sensible. Since the Prime Minister's capacity to determine when the election is to be held is thought to be a particular advantage, it is worth exploring whether or not the advantage is a real one, and if it is, why she would give it away.

The presumed advantage is that she would keep the Opposition guessing, and unable to plan properly. That advantage must be pretty small now: there will be an election this year. She could tough it out until November, but that would suggest that Labor was determined to hang on to power until the very last moment, which would not be a good look. The convention is that you should have an election three years after the last one. Well the September 14 date is three years, three weeks and three days after the last one. Why then? My guess is that any longer would be less than helpful; I would have to know all the minute details that would weigh on her, and I don't.

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Given that there is a budget to prepare and to get through Parliament, and the budget gives a government a great opportunity to sweeten things for the unconvinced (and to reinforce them for the supportive), the election would have to occur after May/June, with the mid-year break an opportunity to prepare for the final campaign. So August/September was always likely. Announcing it now, in my opinion, doesn't give much ammunition to the Opposition. In the old days the great issue was hiring halls for campaign speeches, but that is now past: the campaign is done on television, and online, not in halls.

But the early announcement does protect the Prime Minister's position within her own party. She is the captain, and the ship is going into battle. It would be almost impossible now to replace her. The Ministers know that the position is pretty bad, but the last thing they need now is a leadership challenge. They had better look determined and cheerful. And they will. They will focus on the Prime Minister's presumed advantage as national leader over the Leader of the Opposition, and hope that the recent opinion polls presage an improvement for Labor.

I have my doubts about this strategy, but I would accept that that there is not much else for Labor to do. My own sense of it is that neither leader is at all popular, and that the issue with the electorate is whether or not it would like a change of parties in power, whoever is leading them. I sense a weariness with Labor. The excitement of 'Kevin 07′ was fuelled in part by the fact that the Coalition had been in power for 11 years, the country was prosperous, and John Howard had passed his use-by date. 'Kevin-in-power' was not as attractive as 'Kevin 07′. He was a great talker, but not a great walker, and was replaced in what seemed to most a brutal piece of work. Julia Gillard emerged as the first Australian woman Prime Minister, and the election which was to give her a clear mandate in fact gave her a hung Parliament. Out of that came a deal with the Greens and the independents, that, in my judgment, did her no good at all.

After six years of Labor in power, what has the country to show for it? Lots of talk and some addled action. I won't press on with my recent feelings that we need a real agenda for the future and a leader capable of enunciating it clearly and persuasively. As it happens, I don't think either of the present leaders is able to point to a light on the hill. Each is preoccupied with small-scale deals with this or that group.

The polls show that the race might be close. But another set of polls, taken in marginal seats, says that Labor could lose 18 of them. We have eight months in front of us where the polls will become a daily finger in the wind. The convinced will be looking at the two-party-preferred party positions. I'll be looking at those marginal seats.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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