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Poll date surprise

PM Julia Gillard has stunned politics watchers by throwing away any element of surprise in this year's election date. Will the move help her, or haunt her?

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The Prime Minister's extraordinary decision to announce the federal election date more than half a year early is not a vote-changer, but it is a conversation-changer.

And that is something that the government needed desperately.

It ended last year with Wayne Swan's abject admission that the Labor Party was abandoning its iron-clad guarantee of a budget surplus in May.

This was such a grave failure of credibility that the government needed to open this year with a dramatic change of subject. Julia Gillard's announcement yesterday achieved that spectacularly.

Prime ministers traditionally guard the secret of the election date more jealously than they conceal treasured gems of national security.

While a war plan will be discussed among dozens of officials and ministers, a prime minister typically restricts an election plan to a number of intimates that can be counted on one hand.

Until yesterday. Gillard exploded all convention by publicly announcing an election date 227 days in advance. In a way, she was making a virtue of a necessity.

Remember that, as a condition of forming a minority government, she signed an agreement with two independent MPs committing herself to an election in September or October this year.

To call an election any earlier would have been to begin a campaign in a deluge of accusations of bad faith and yet another broken promise.

The early announcement does not mean that Gillard loses a prime minister's tactical advantage of surprise. It just means that she exercised it yesterday, instead of in August.

Beyond changing the subject, Gillard's move yesterday works on two further levels.

First, it allows her to put new pressure on Tony Abbott. Ever since the Australian people punished John Hewson for treating us like grown-ups with his full and early election manifesto, opposition leaders have kept their policy plans as mysterious as possible for as long as possible.

They customarily wait until an election is called, hiding behind the uncertainty as an excuse for concealment.

Gillard has just removed that comfortable hiding place. She immediately demanded Abbott produce detailed policy plans, fully costed by the new independent Parliamentary Budget Office.

So it works as a political tactic.

Second, Gillard can truthfully claim that her early announcement has removed a source of uncertainty for companies and institutions trying to plan their year. So it works as a national interest argument.

It is a successful tactic. But it is not a strategy. Even greater than Labor's need to change the subject is its need to win votes.

It is a vital qualification for election that a political party is seen as superior on economic management.

Labor was way behind the Coalition on this core credential even before it abandoned its promised surplus, according to the opinion polls.

Gillard managed to get the conversation off this uncomfortable reality yesterday. But she cannot avoid it if she hopes to win the election she has now announced.

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