Thursday, 31 January 2013
The bewilderment of most of the press gallery to Gillard’s setting of an election date eight months ahead is a sure sign that it’s probably being done mostly for internal reasons – something the press gallery is often curiously blind to.
Gillard claims it is to clear the air of an election and allow the government to govern but, of course, it does the exact opposite. As the press correctly notes, it puts us into an eight month long election campaign or, more accurately, formalises the three year campaign we are already in. In doing so, it locks the Labor party behind her in campaign mode. The slight sense of siege mentality in the leadership was reinforced by the way that she told so few even in the Cabinet about it – except for seeking the advice of that astute political strategist, Wayne Swan.
But at a guess, as an electoral strategy it is probably a bad idea. Presumably the electoral rationale was that it would give time for Abbott to expose himself and, as dutifully parroted by Swan last night, an opposition that has no costed policies. But then, as shown by Swan last night, neither really does the government. Both he and Wong hid behind the May Budget Statement for not giving any details last night, but as both interviewers tried to explain, it was not details they were after. There was no clear government strategy or message in the run up to the Budget either, other than a crisis management that would be done the “Labor way”. What would Labor have done if there weren’t economic difficulties? Who can tell?
If Labor wants a detailed, year long debate on policies, what exactly would it be on? For a start there is the problem that Labor has adopted a lot of the Coalition’s platform already. There are certainly debates to be had on welfare-to-work, offshore processing and the war in Afghanistan, but that won’t happen between the parties. What is the economic debate at the moment? Not a clue.
Labor could always campaign on the carbon tax, which would be a refreshing change, since it hasn’t yet. Having made clear she was forced by the Greens to bring it in, Gillard hardly stumped the country last year promoting it, preferring instead to let Abbott do the leg-work and wait for his ludicrous claims to come to nought. One suspects that Sussex St is not exactly suggesting she goes around western Sydney pushing it this time, any more than they did the last.
No, clearly the main “issue” that Labor will be campaigning on is Abbott, just as they did in 2010. But Labor’s view on Abbott comes more from their own insecurities than the reality. It was why Abbott campaigned better than everyone expected last time and presumably will do so again. There are no doubt others who are capable of providing “Katerrisms” through the next months to the embarrassment of the Liberals, much as conservative Republicans did in the US election. But Gillard is not in the same position as Obama to take advantage of them.
It is the paradox of an extraordinarily long election campaign in inverse proportion to an extraordinary light agenda to fill it that goes to the heart of Gillard’s problem and the real reason why this may be a bad move. Since Gillard took over she has had a problem of incumbency. This is not so much a problem of Gillard (although claiming she would rather listen to kids read than attend a NATO meeting on Afghanistan or sprawling around sofas for the Women’s Weekly or claiming to be a victim of sexism hardly helped).
Gillard’s real problem of incumbency is that having being put in the leadership for internal reasons the power brokers who backed her had no agenda to give her – except some half-backed ideas on a Citizens Assembly and East Timor processing centre. Gillard rushed to an election last time to fill the gap. She can’t do that now, so has announced one early for much the same reason.
But last time she entered the campaign ahead in the polls (although it had mostly gone by the first week before the leaks). This time she starts way behind. Given the expectations of an Abbott win, her early announcement of an election will less focus attention on the governing by this one, but by the new one to come in September. Just as in the US, there is the inevitable malaise in the second half of the second term as power drains away and attention turns to the next Administration, so it is likely to happen here.
The difference is that in Australia, a Prime Minister facing even the most inevitable of defeats still holds to the end one power of incumbency – deciding when it will happen. Now even that has been thrown away.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 31 January 2013.Filed under State of the parties, Tactics