By Sarah Capper
February 14, 2013
If you google ‘election date speculation’ or ‘election timing’ and any of the last federal election year dates (eg. 2010, 2007), you get millions of results. So much so, that in the lead up to a federal poll (or state for that matter, where there are no fixed terms), a large media focus becomes fixated on the exact date on which we will vote.
When the Prime Minister surprisingly announced September 14 as this year’s federal poll date (at her National Press Club address a fortnight ago), it sucked a lot of oxygen out of a tedious debate that would normally ensue.
Of course, there’s always certain supposed ‘rules’ in setting election dates. The main ones to consider are that elections are not to be held to interrupt any religious (secular or sporting) festival. Yes, as a sports mad nation, the notion that we might have to vote and watch a football game on the same day for some is said to be sacrilegious.
For example, it is seen to be a no brainer that an election would be called on a grand final weekend. Even a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald from June 1946 carries this ominous passage:
“CANBERRA, Thursday.-Victorian members of Parliament are frowning on September 28 as the Federal general election date because a big football match is to be played in Melbourne that day … They claim that the game will attract 80,000 people and will affect polling figures.”
The election was held on September 28, and Chifley was returned to Government.
According to the AFL, there have been nine federal elections that have fallen during the “football season” since 1946, which is presumably a bit of a broad statement given that the season lasts for nearly six months of the year and general elections are held on Saturdays.
But if you listen to the current doomsdayer commentary surrounding the latest ‘drugs in sport’ scandal, we might be lucky to actually get to footy finals this year (queue doctored tabloid images of Lance Armstrong wearing an AFL jersey, or a photo of random footballs from various codes with syringes in the foreground).
And presumably as a Western Bulldogs supporter the Prime Minister may not think she herself will be preoccupied with her team being in one of the finals.
Of course, whenever an election date is announced there will always be someone or some group unhappy. Queue the Member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull, who immediately took to Twitter to bemoan the coinciding date of Yom Kippur with this year’s poll date.
As some people pointed out, any Saturday is potentially problematic with the orthodox Jew population, given there are strict observations to be held on their Sabbath. But presumably Turnbull wasn’t the only one looking up a calendar to see if there was a religious event that could be put off-side by this year’s date.
The cons of the Prime Minister setting the date so far ahead of time are that traditionally, ‘surprising’ the election date when the Opposition is caught off guard or distracted by their own mini-scandal will presumably favour the incumbent. By playing this card already, Gillard has potentially lost this opportunity.
The pros are that she started the year looking in charge, decisive, and setting the agenda, as well as keeping her promise (something she needs to be seen to be doing in the eyes of the wider electorate who like to misspell her name) with independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who included a full-three-year electoral cycle in their conditions and terms when forming a minority Government with Gillard in the aftermath of the 2010 election.
Of course, the day after Gillard’s recent announcement, the Member for Dobell Craig Thomson was now famously arrested on fraud charges, which sucked a lot of debate out of the election date decision.
There’s been separate conspiracy theories that both sides of politics knew about Thomson’s imminent arrest – one being that Gillard announced the election date the day before to try and avoid any byelection demands, and the other being that the other side were somehow able to influence the timing of the arrest as the first ‘salvo’ fired in the election campaign.
But Gillard had nothing obvious to gain from Thomson’s arrest drowning out any other political news, and the same could be said for Abbott, who, at the time of Thomson’s arrest was making his own speech to the National Press Club.
Arguably the best theory is a lot simpler. That the Prime Minister wants to show up the Opposition leader for his lack of policy and costings details, by providing a good eight months for him to have no excuses but to do so.
At the announcement, she made a big point of distinguishing between ‘governing’ and ‘campaigning’, arguing the media and pundits would be able to tell the difference (possibly putting a little too much faith in these groups – presumably a child care policy announcement in this year’s parliamentary year that involves kissing babies may blur some lines).
But despite distinguishing between campaigning and governing, a lot of media have chosen to ignore this in their subsequent analysis and instead bang on about an ‘eight month election campaign’. Oh. The. Horror. As David Donovan observed in Independent Australia:
As I watched her National Press Club address yesterday, I thought: that’s an interesting move. What I didn’t think was: “Ohmigod! An eight month election campaign!”
Which obviously makes me utterly ineligible to work in Australia’s mainstream media, because that was about the only thing the Canberra Press Gallery and the publications they work for could think about, and this shallow thought bite went into immediate rotation on the ever disappointing ABC24 and the always excitable SkyNews. It was repeated today by such luminaries in the field of political cogitation as Limited News’ Sydney flagship The Daily Terror Telegraph, whose front page this morning thundered in skyscraper caps “227 DAYS OF FARCE” and was pretty much the line run by all of Australia’s mainstream mindmeld media today.
But once the media moves on from the supposed-terror of a so-called ‘eight month campaign’, Gillard’s announcement should shift the focus to governing and policies – for both sides – as opposed to the usual endless questions about when the election date will be.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott needs to move beyond the simplistic ‘strong economy’ and ‘stop the boats’ slogans and previous avoidance of policy details and debate. It means that unlike the last time around, during the 2010 campaign, Abbott shouldn’t be able to refuse to have the Coalition’s policies costed (following the campaign, Treasury did in fact go over the Coalition’s figures at the insistence of Oakeshott and Windsor and discovered a $7 billion hole).
Eight months is certainly plenty of time for the Opposition leader to be forced to come up with the goods. And democracy will be all the better for it.
Disclaimer: Sarah Capper is a Western Bulldogs supporter who despite their poor finish last year, and despite Brian Lake’s departure to Hawthorn wiping out their back-line, still hopes to be watching her team play on the federal election weekend in one of the finals.