BRING IT ON! SLOWLY…
It may be a little like the tortoise and the hare, Tony Abbott sprinting here and there, all hairy-chested promises while Julia Gillard drags the weight of incumbency towards the finish line.
It may be a Labor masterstroke or it may be the last nail in the Labor coffin. We will not know until the morning after the election on September 14.
Julia Gillard certainly blindsided us all yesterday by calling the longest Australian election campaign.
Julia Gillard addresses the National Press Club in Canberra. Photo: Gary Ramage, News Ltd.
The Prime Minister insisted it was not about a marathon campaign, rather, it was about removing the speculation in order to get on with serious policy debate.
Tony Abbott came out of the boxes, declaring rather tentatively that it was an election about trust, harking back to John Howard’s last campaign.
The Opposition Leader was clearly rattled, refusing to take questions from the press gallery and instead choosing to feed the chooks on the evening news bulletins with the choice slogans we know so well. Scrap the carbon tax. Stop the boats. End the waste.
The Prime Minister said her announcement meant there would be a clear time for governing and, after the Parliament was officially dissolved on August 12, a clear time for campaigning.
The independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor welcomed the date, reminding the electorate that in their agreement to form minority government, Gillard had promised to go the full term and only hold an election in September or October this year.
There are three points to note here.
Firstly, in spite of her comments, this will be the longest campaign but then 2013 was always going to be a full year of campaigning.
Secondly, this unprecedented strategy of naming a date eight months early was designed to maximise pressure on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Thirdly, a fixed election date so far out is not the end of the world. The states have survived with fixed terms, with four years notice.
Though the writs will be issued to dissolve parliament in August, the campaign starts now.
And this was a campaign speech. We can expect the Industry and Innovation (read job creation) policy in coming weeks, national education policy negotiations in the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in April, touted budget cuts to “middle class welfare” in the May budget – presumably to pave the way for funding the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in July and the Gonski recommendations.
We know the Prime Minister’s campaign will focus on a return to perceived Labor strengths – education and relief for the “battlers”, Labor’s traditional constituency which has been drifting to the Liberals since John Howard’s tenure.
So we have eight months to hear about that agenda, and according to the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green, it is a damn sight longer than the marathon three month campaigns of the Menzies government in 1958 and 1961.
In announcing the date, the PM has given up her traditional advantage of surprise, so you might think the Opposition would be pleased to have so much notice.
As it was, the Coalition began a mini-campaign on Sunday, with a rally of the troops and a 50 page policy document, sans costings, while rolling out a television ad campaign featuring a kinder, gentler Tony.
But Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey described it as “trickery” and said it was about heading off a challenge to Gillard’s leadership.
While there have been grumbles on her backbench, the prospect of a leadership challenge from Rudd or anyone else is pie in the sky. The numbers are not there.
What is clear is that Labor hopes this long lead time will focus heat on the Opposition Leader like sunlight through a magnifying glass.
As Labor rolls out their policies, every doorstop, every press conference, Abbott will be asked about the Coalition’s alternative.
No doubt his answer will be that the campaign does not officially begin until August 12, so he is not going to release the policy until then: the famous “small target strategy”.
But six months of the same statements will start to sound pretty hollow.
Will the electorate survive this marathon or will we all get jack of it and go the donkey vote in even greater numbers?
I say bring it on.
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*Gabrielle Chan is The Hoopla’s political correspondent. She is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience, having worked most recently as a regular columnist with The Australian. She has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She blogs at www.gabriellechan.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @gabriellechan.