Forget Policy, We're Having An Election!


The Prime Minister gave a speech to the National Press Club yesterday. It was quite a good speech, actually, and well worth a read if you’re interested in the Government’s policy priorities in 2013. Julia Gillard briefly sketched her view of the state of the nation, and explained some of the constraints and challenges the Government — or indeed an incoming Abbott government — faces in terms of implementing policies.

"In Australia, revenue to government for every unit of GDP has been at its lowest since the recession of the early 1990s," she said, which underlines the scale of the fiscal challenge facing economic policymakers. "Even compared to what was forecast once the worst of the global financial crisis had passed, annual revenue is tens of billions of dollars below what was expected."

Gillard then laid out some of the priorities for Labor this year, including bedding down the National Disability Insurance Scheme and coming to an agreement with the states on the Gonski schools funding reforms. In order to pay for all this, she flagged a further tightening of middle class welfare provisions. Superannuation and Family Tax Benefit, collectively worth tens of billions a year in overnment spending, look like the obvious candidates.

It’s most likely you won’t have heard much about any of this. The substance of her speech was little reported on. In part, the usual media frippery is to blame. Such are the diminished standards of political journalism in this country, Fairfax is actually running a story today about the Prime Minister’s eyewear.

Mind you, the lack of attention on the content of Gillard’s Press Club address is mostly the fault of the Prime Minister herself. That is because, towards the end of her speech, Julia Gillard let slip that Australia would be going to the polls on 14 September. Understandably, that little nugget of news has dominated the mediascape.

We can rule out a few of the more hysterical claims advanced since Gillard set the date of the election seven months early. This will not be the "longest election campaign in history" — that distinction should probably be accorded to the United States, where prospective presidential candidates start raising war chests on the Wednesday after the November elections.

It’s not even the longest campaign in Australian history — the twin referenda on conscription during World War I stretched across 14 months, for instance. By the way, every Australian state except Queensland has fixed terms, so if a fixed date means a permanent campaign, then the majority of Australian voters are already exposed.

But why let a few simple facts get in the way of a slanted story? That was apparently the view of the Melbourne Herald-Sun, which headlined today’s newspaper with a less-than-restrained "227 DAY FARCE".

The ABC’s Chris Uhlmann was similarly unimpressed, telling Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan that "this is now a campaign, no matter what you say". You can’t help but wonder if many in the media are angry that they’ve been deprived of months of ready-made copy speculating on the election date.

Philosophically, there are a number of different ways to define an election campaign. Constitutional convention tells us that the government only enters caretaker mode when the writs are issued by the governor-general. On this definition, the campaign is a normal five weeks.

Another way of defining a campaign is as an unusually heightened period of political activity. This seems to be the definition that many in the press gallery are advancing. But modern politics is an increasingly intense beast. 2013, being an election year, was always going to be a pretty busy time in politics. Tony Abbott had already launched a self-described "mini-campaign" last week, which included a glossy campaign brochure and television advertisements. Given the 24-hour nature of the modern media cycle, campaign activity is in fact a constituent part of the democratic process. Setting a date early doesn’t change that.

Media shenanigans aside, it’s worth reflecting on what the election date really means. Not very much, in my opinion. As more than a few bloggers have already observed, the way the Constitution works meant the Government pretty much had to call an election between August and November anyway.

This announcement removes that uncertainty and puts a clear timetable in front of everyone. It also ensures the government will serve a full term of three years. So much for the belief held by many that Julia Gillard’s minority government wouldn’t last.

The setting of a date is of course a tactical move by the Prime Minister. It offers the twin advantages of locking in Labor dissidents behind the Prime Minister — something which was well underway before Christmas anyway — as well as giving the Government some easy ammunition with which to attack the Opposition and its dubious costings. It gives the Government a chance to methodically dissect the Coalition’s threadbare policy positions, and has the added bonus of allowing Tony Abbott more opportunities to say something silly. A long, relentless campaign also plays to Gillard’s personal strengths of discipline and tenacity.

Of course, there are risks. One is that voters will be so sick of it all by 14 September that they turn against the government in anger. But Labor is already disliked by many voters. Given Labor’s precarious situation in the electorate, such risks have been judged worth taking.

The Coalition also picks up some advantages from the arrangement. Liberal campaign headquarters now has a fixed timetable with which to marshall the troops and book the television ad slots. More certainty confers benefits on the bigger battalions, and in many states the Liberal Party is already a better organised political machine than Labor.

Nor is it necessarily true that the longer lead time will allow the election to focus more on policy discussion. Much of the Australian media is simply unable to meaningfully discuss policy, no matter what the inclination of audiences and citizens (witness the discussion about Gillard’s glasses). And the Opposition will have plenty of excuses to hold back key announcements until the time is propitious. It seems unlikely that a set election date will make it any easier for the Government to force the Coalition’s hand and flush out some uncosted policies.

What we’re left with, in other words, is a political landscape largely identical to the one we had before Julia Gillard set the date yesterday. The truth is that a set date on 14 September changes little.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.