Public service told to prepare for March poll

The Canberra bureaucracy is being primed for a federal election to be possibly held early next year.

But political insiders say there are major obstacles and far too many risks for the government in sending Australians back to the polls too soon.

Public service departments are being directed to bring work forward and clear backlogs in preparation for an early campaign.

Fairfax Media understands Saturday, March 16, has been mooted within government as a possible election date.

Without a double dissolution of both houses of Parliament, for which there is not yet a trigger, it would mean a House of Representatives election only and that could have a backlash for the government.

There is also Labor's agreement with independent MPs that it would serve a full term, which poses another difficulty for the government.


But a senior Labor source said on Friday that avoiding bringing down a budget before the next election was a prime motivation. ''We don't want to be bringing down a tough budget or the embarrassment of a budget without the promised surplus and then be going to the polls a couple of months after that,'' the contact said.

''August the third is obviously another date being considered and that is still a possibility.

''But the third Saturday in March is now being seriously tossed around as an option.''

Public service sources have also confirmed that some recent directives have indicated that the government is considering an early election.

But a high ranking departmental contact suggested the vibes from the government suggested it was more likely part of a strategy aimed at rattling the opposition.

''Governments of both shades do things like this as elections get nearer,'' the source said.

''And one reason governments put the public service on high alert like this is because they actually don't mind if word gets out. It gets the opposition into a bit of a tizzy.''

Political analyst Malcolm Mackerras said the government would be foolish to rush back to the polls.

''They couldn't justify it and there would be a tremendous backlash,'' he said.

''The two houses would be out of kilter more than ever before and Labor would pay a heavy price at the hands of a sceptical electorate.

''I would dismiss the idea of a March election.'' Some Labor preselections have been taking place with what some MPs say is a ''sense of urgency''.

The sentiment is that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is ''on the nose'' and that Prime Minister Julia Gillard should capitalise on that mood within the electorate.

''The best thing we have going for us at the moment is Abbott,'' one Labor source said.

''If the polls are good in February, there could be a March election. It is being discussed.''

Next week is the last parliamentary sitting week this year. MPs will not return until the first week of February.

If a March election was called, they could be sitting for as little as one week next year before being thrust into a formal campaign.

But Professor Mackerras said that would be unlikely.