Poll date insult?
There are precedents for Julia Gillard's setting the election date many months beforehand, but she still might upset some sticklers for protocol.PT0M0S 620 349
It was a dramatic look-at-me moment. And it sent a surge of political electricity through her audience at the National Press Club. It was Julia Gillard giving unprecedented notice of the election date. Gillard sought to paint herself as the stateswoman who provides certainty to business and the community, takes the public into her confidence, and distinguishes between ''governing'' and ''campaigning''.
It's again about conveying the impression of strong leadership, saying that she is in charge, making the big decisions, seizing the initiatives. She tried this a week ago on a more minor scale when she dumped Senator Trish Crossin for high-profile Aboriginal candidate Nova Peris, although that didn't go too smoothly.
While Gillard is giving business, investors and others greater certainty, she is doing the same for the opposition.
It's notable that Gillard uses the personal pronoun more than most leaders, stressing the ''I'' rather than talking about ''we'' or even ''the government''.
Illustration: John Spooner.
Of course, election timing is always the leader's prerogative. But this decision is beyond choosing a date. It is about changing the approach by outlining a very long timetable. Yet while Gillard talked to some colleagues, she did not discuss it with the full cabinet. One of those not consulted was Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, who told Sky: ''I listened to the speech with great interest.''
To some extent, Gillard is making a virtue of necessity. She was locked into a September-October period by deals with key crossbenchers. The date was to be ''agreed''. What they got was the courtesy of prior warning.
If she had broken her word by a premature election, she would have simply reinforced the impression that she couldn't be trusted. And, despite periodic speculation, why would she have wanted an early election anyway? She needs maximum time to try to discredit Tony Abbott (while not delaying so long that she looks desperate). Moreover, if you are likely to lose, best to run full term and do as much as you can.
The PM is attempting to distinguish her approach from that of Abbott, who this week launched what was billed as a mini-campaign. She says there is a time for governing - the coming months - and then a time for campaigning. ''Governing first, electioneering second.''
Her announcement was ''not to start the nation's longest election campaign'', she declared. ''Quite the opposite. It should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning.
''In 2012, the patience of Australians was tried by months of boiling-hot political debate. In 2013, I am determined their patience is not tried again . . . that policies and plans are at the centre of our national discourse.''
Just because Gillard says it doesn't necessarily make it so. Surely the reality will be different. We have been in continous electioneering for two years; many players on Wednesday were talking as though it was the first day of the formal campaign.
Gillard strategists see the pressure on Abbott, but a Gillard caucus critic said that ''with one fell swoop she has turned Abbott from Opposition Leader into alternative PM''. Bob Hawke in 1984 had a bad experience when he gave opposition leader Andrew Peacock an eight-week campaign platform - this is getting on for eight months (nearly 230 days).
Abbott, welcoming the election announcement, continued talking like a man on the hustings. Having a date legitimises his doing so. ''All Australians can look forward to September 14,'' he said.
While Gillard is giving business, investors and others greater certainty, she is doing the same for the opposition. More pressure will go on the Coalition to produce its policies - that pressure was there already - but for the opposition planners to have a date makes things much easier in terms of everything from policy-release schedules to booking advertising slots. An opposition doesn't have massive resources and uncertainty about dates is usually one of its burdens. Liberal director Brian Loughnane will be privately saying his thanks.
Kevin Rudd's leadership chances have faded; if anything, having a date out there just knocks them again. Labor likes to make mischief by talking up Malcolm Turnbull, but its strategists believe this date further locks in the leadership on both sides.
The first test of Gillard's bold move will be the next major opinion polls. This week's Essential poll suggested the omens were promising: 51 per cent said the government should run ''to later in 2013''; 35 per cent thought an election should be held now.
Meanwhile, on policy, Gillard's National Press Club speech framed what we already knew, rather than revealing much that is new. It's her ''plan'' versus Abbott's ''plan''. You've guessed it - the wish for a ''plan'' comes through strongly in both sides' focus groups.
Her message had jobs, opportunity, fairness and helping ''modern families'' as touchstones. The economy is central. The revenue is in bad shape. Gillard's mantra is about getting things done and countering any thought that we can't get them done.
There will be an industry statement tackling the problems of the two-speed economy and the high dollar. Improving educational opportunity is a ''moral cause''; having Australia's schools more internationally competitive is ''the crusade which defines this term of my prime ministership''.
But school reform and a disability insurance scheme must be responsibly paid for, and so Gillard promises structural savings. Detail later. There has been speculation about a tough attitude to middle-class welfare. In an election year, it's a case of believe it when you see it.
Those around her insist Gillard is resolute and confident, a woman who knows where she is going. ''She's not afraid to make calls,'' said one. Well, she's made one hell of a call this time.
If it comes to be seen as a good judgment, her colleagues will laud her boldness; if it turns sour, it will be hailed as another example of going off half-cocked.
Michelle Grattan is The Age's political editor.