Goodbye fixed election date, hello long campaign

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard took that single step this week by announcing the general election date 227 days in advance. The journey is aimed at putting pressure on the Opposition to debate issues and policy rather than to engage in slanging matches in Parliament and on the hustings.
It won’t work, of course, but it could help to establish a fixed date for an election, as happens in the US, which occurs, by law, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, for general elections of public officials, and every four years for the president. And just to make it more difficult, the next step was taken by the NSW Police, on behalf of their Victorian counterparts, who arrested former Labor MP Craig Thomson on fraud charges as Tony Abbott was addressing the National Press Club. More of that later.
To go on that long journey would mean that both sides of Parliament (including the independents) would have to agree to a fixed date every three years (or maybe four!), except when a snap election is called. That, too, is unlikely unless the PM’s unprecedented early election date announcement actually achieves what she wants – to “enable individuals and businesses, investors and consumers to plan their year.” And here’s the key: “It gives shape and order to the year and it enables it to be one not of fevered campaigning but of cool and reasoned deliberation.”
If that happens, the calls for reform of electoral laws will increase. The Greens Leader, Christine Milne, said the Prime Minister’s announcement presented a “a great opportunity” to shift to fixed federal terms: “The Greens are now calling on Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to say ‘Let’s now agree from henceforth we will have fixed three-year terms, we will all know that the election’s going to be in that second week of September, for henceforth three years. Wouldn’t that 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? Let’s do more than debate it, let’s have an agreement to do it.”
I agree with Christine Milne that it would be a great thing if it could prevent all the game playing, but I’m not as optimistic as she seems to be. I’m afraid that politicians will not be able to stop themselves from putting the boot in, especially if they think it will win votes, and if MPs are arrested on fraud charges. The Prime Minister denied she had launched a 227-day marathon campaign: “I do not do so to start the nation’s longest election campaign. Quite the opposite – it should be clear to all which are the days of government and which are the days of campaigning.”
In the United States, the real presidential election campaign allegedly doesn’t begin until the Democrats and Republicans have held their national conventions and Labor Day heralds the end of the summer holidays in early September. That means two months of serious campaigning, but the parties’ primaries start in January and by June or July, the presidential nominees are usually known. When an incumbent is running for a second term, he (or she – someday!) starts campaigning when the primaries begin.
I defy any politician to make clear which are the “days of government and which are the days of campaigning.” Every day is a day of campaigning, as evidenced by Tony Abbott’s speech, the arrest of Craig Thomson, and the media reaction today!
And as far as the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the early call “would enable individuals and businesses, investors and consumers to plan their year,” the exchange between Janine Perrett and Innes Willox, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, the leading business lobby group, on The Perrett Report, on Sky Business cast some doubt on business welcoming the election date.
But the welcome only came after Perrett criticised Willox for saying the campaign would be too long: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and every election there’s speculation for months beforehand, if not a year, because an election can be called at any time, and business hammers us in the media with the uncertainty and speculation, it’s better just to know the date. And here you got it and you claim that it’s too long and if you were in the US or other countries, you have a fixed date, we have fixed dates here.”
Willox replied: “I accept that, and I lived in the US for a long time. They’re in a perpetual election mode. But they know that – that’s part of their cycle. This is something new for us, and we haven’t had an election campaign this long in our history …” Perrett interrupted to ask if we haven’t been in election mode since the minority government got in, and he responded: “We have and we haven’t . We also have a government, whether you like it or not, that has been able to govern and get things done. But now we know we do have an election time and an election time frame. There will be that pressure on getting policies out … that is a good thing because we can have a focus on industrial relations, on taxation reform, on deregulation, on infrastructure on all the issues important to our economy … the point is now we are deep election mode, Janine, and that is what will focus everyone’s minds between now and September 14.”
Perrett pointed out that Tony Abbott already had an election launch last Sunday and she didn’t see business criticising him for that. Willox said that was just the theatre of politics, but went on to say: “It’s not a terrible thing that we have a date. Don’t get me wrong here.”
To which Perrett replied, with her usual passion: “Good. I like to hear business welcome something after all these years of whingeing about uncertainty. It’s nice to say: ‘this is good’.”
These sorts of arguments were all the rage in print, online, radio and television. But the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, hid his usual “attack dog” mode behind a pretty face (lots of makeup, I think!) and sober rhetoric in his response to the Prime Minister’s speech. Both addresses were at the National Press Club this week, and Julia Gillard also added some new glasses to give her a prime ministerial look.
But Mr Abbott’s demeanour and the content of his speech certainly confirmed it was day two of an election campaign and he began with a profile of the “good” Abbott to his influential audience in Canberra and viewers around the nation: “I guess I have a fairly typical politician’s resume. Along the way though, I’ve been a concrete plant manager as well as a Rhodes scholar, a footy coach as well as a journalist, a nipper parent as well as a political adviser.”
In an email leaked to the Daily Telegraph,Tony Abbott had already signalled what sort of image he wanted when he asked his staff for feedback to a draft of his speech. He suggests he has enough personal stories in his speech to show “he is a good bloke, and yes he is more fair dinkum.” And if that’s not campaigning, then God didn’t make little green apples and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.
The Opposition Leader also made it clear trust was going to be a major theme of the campaign, borrowing the ploy from his mentor, John Howard: “Before the last election the Government promised that it would deliver a budget surplus but no carbon tax. In fact, it’s delivered a carbon tax but no budget surplus. So my pledge to you is that I won’t say one thing before the election and do the opposite afterwards because fibbing your way into office is what’s brought our public life into disrepute.”
And then there was a Craig Thomson moment when Mr Abbott must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. He couldn’t help smiling when Lyndal Curtis of the ABC asked him about Thomson’s arrest as the breaking news strap was still on display on television screens. And the Opposition Leader couldn’t resist adding this to his usual answer of saying the issue was not what Mr Thomson had or had not done: “It’s always been about the judgment of the Prime Minister and I’m afraid the judgment of a Prime Minister who was running a protection racket for Craig Thomson … is something that remains very much in question.”
Getting back to the question of a fixed election date, I have to admit the first two days of the campaign – Sorry, Prime Minister – have made me very sceptical that any electoral law reform will occur. As Dennis Shanahan put it in The Australian this morning: “Julia Gillard’s strategy of announcing the election date seven months early was exposed twice yesterday by events that showed why it wasn’t a good idea.
“The first was that Tony Abbott was able to present his speech to the National Press Club with all of the ceremony and atmosphere of an election campaign launch, which galvanised his presentation and tone as the alternative prime minister … The second blow was the arrest of former Labor MP Craig Thomson on fraud charges.” The cartoon by Nicholson in The Australian today above sums up the PM’s dilemma.
If you think Federal Parliament will focus on policy when it resumes next week, well, you believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and that Lance Armstrong is telling the truth.
Goodbye fixed election date, hello long election campaign.

3 thoughts on “Goodbye fixed election date, hello long campaign

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