The long and winding road

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Abbott and Gillard

Abbott and Gillard

Federal Election 2013

In a controversial break from tradition, Prime Minister Julia Gillard took many by surprise by announcing that the next federal election would be on September 14, more than seven months away. Never before in Australia has a federal election date been declared more than three months in advance.

What motivated the early announcement?

In giving her reasons, Prime Minister Gillard said she wished to clearly delineate "the days of governing" from the "days of campaigning" and to provide certainty for "individuals and business, investors and consumers" to plan ahead.

She also sought to "clear away the carry-on" that traditionally precedes election announcements; hoping to put the focus on policies rather than "petty politics". She stated that it was not her intention to start the nation's "longest election campaign".

Serving a full three-year term was also a condition of support from the Green and independent MPs who enabled the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to form a minority government after the 2010 federal election. This agreement was to ensure some political stability after an indecisive election result.

Many have congratulated the Prime Minister on her decisiveness and for providing certainty to the public. Others are less enthusiastic; fearing that the nation will now be forced to endure seven months of electioneering.

What rules surround the calling of an election?

Election dates are "fixed" in most Australian states except Tasmania and Queensland. Federal election dates, however, are not. The federal parliament cannot run for more than three years after the day it first convenes. During a government's third and final year in office, it nominates a date for the next federal election; often timing the announcement to suit its political agenda. Steady media speculation and secrecy customarily surround this decision. Also, a minimum campaign period of 33 days before election day is required.

In accordance with these rules, the official election campaign period for 2013 will begin on August 12, when "writs" (court orders) for an election will be issued. Consequently, the current House of Representatives will be dissolved; the Labor government will become a "caretaker government", and half the Senate will prepare for re-election.

Were other political motives at play?

Some say that in making the surprise announcement, the Prime Minister hopes to be perceived as a strong, decisive, open and transparent leader who can provide certainty to the nation. Others suggest the intention was to fend off another leadership challenge from former prime minister Kevin Rudd; or to limit the likelihood of a "no confidence" motion for the government, particularly after the controversies surrounding former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former speaker of the house Peter Slipper, as well as the recent resignations of senior MPs Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans.

Some say the decision provides certainty for the Opposition; enabling it to efficiently plan its election strategy and ration its campaign resources. However, many argue that it puts additional pressure on Opposition leader Tony Abbott to quickly produce viable, accurately costed policies.

What about fixed-date governmental terms?

Prime Minister Gillard's announcement has also reignited calls for a shift to fixed terms of government, with set election dates at national level. Those in favour argue that Australia's three-year federal terms are not long enough to implement government agendas and encourage "opportunistic, short-term politicking" rather than thoughtful, long-term reforms. Given the uncertainty of when an election may be called, they say governments ostensibly have only 2 1/2 years to govern, with the remainder devoted to being re-elected. In the United States, governments have a fixed term of four years with federal elections held in the first week of November at the conclusion of each four-year cycle. Some are now calling for four-year, fixed-date governmental terms in Australia.

Other fixed-term advocates argue that "wandering" election dates add to business uncertainty, take the focus away from important policy issues and often result in decisions being timed for political gain rather than the national interest. Tony Abbott, however, has argued against fixed terms, saying they force voters to wait a full term before removing an undesirable government.

Is Labor taking its lead from US politics?

Some argue that the Labor Party is attracted by US politics, particularly the 2012 re-election of President, Barack Obama (Democratic Party) after his embattled first term in office. Labor representatives have reportedly visited the US to research Democrat election strategies, hoping that the government's flagging popularity can be revived in time for the 2013 election.

Some suggest that in announcing the election early, Labor is planning to run a US-style election campaign, which requires a longer time frame, in an attempt to paint Mr Abbott in the same way the Democrats attempted to paint their Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Given a longer "campaign" period, some suggest that Mr Abbott, whose public communications have been described as "gaffe-prone", may issue a "fatal gaffe" before the election; enhancing Labor's re-election prospects.

Others oppose the strategy; arguing that American-style political campaigning, with its "nasty" personal attacks and prolonged duration would not be welcomed in Australia.

Recent Headlines

"PM announces election for September 14" – The Age, January 30

"Abbott has time to prove he's a leader – but is it enough?" – The Sydney Morning Herald, January 30

"Early call on poll places fixed terms back on agenda" – The Australian, January 31

"Labor's plot to make Tony Abbott into Mitt Romney" – Crikey, February 1

What The Age says

"Some might accuse Ms Gillard of giving us an ultramarathon campaign, although this has not been the result of fixed-date state elections. The battles of the past two years will probably rage through to September 14, but we would hope Ms Gillard can deliver on her commitment that "it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning".

It would be even better if Ms Gillard restored Labor's promise of a referendum on fixed, four-year terms to permanently "create an environment in which the nation's eyes are more easily focused on the policies", in her words. That reform would be a more durable and democratically satisfying way to end the damaging uncertainty about election dates."
Editorial opinion, January 31

What people say

"This is a quasi-fixed-term parliament now. I think it is a good for democracy. We all know now when we'll be put out of our misery."
Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, The Age, January 30

"In one fell swoop, she [Prime Minister Gillard] has blind-sided the so-called experts while also removing their chance to speculate endlessly about possible election dates throughout the year. Incidentally, the complaint that this will lead to a long, protracted campaign is entirely unwarranted. Tony Abbott has been campaigning continuously for the past three years."
Tim Rivett, The Age, February 1

"Deeply disappointed that Gillard chose to hold the election on Yom Kippur – the most solemn and sacred day of the Jewish year"
Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull, Twitter, January 29

"I welcome a seven-month build-up to the federal election as it will provide an opportunity for detailed debate, rather than a presidential-style, head-to-head, sound-bites campaign."
David Ringelblum, The Age, January 31

"Wouldn't [fixed three-year terms] be a great thing for the Australian people so that we didn't have all the game playing that has gone on in the past?"
Greens leader Christine Milne, The Australian, January 31

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Your View

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This story The long and winding road first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.