Here’s hoping that policies will get a fair airing
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has done the right and brave thing in telling the country when the election will be. Right because it focuses the year on policy and takes the focus off process.
Brave because it cedes her prime ministerial prerogative to keep Tony Abbott guessing.
What makes this such a critical election for Australia is that the dividing lines between the two parties are so incredibly stark. These policy differences deserve a fair airing. The unorthodox announcement of the election date now, at the beginning of a long year, makes that possible.
Anyone who has been around federal politics as long as me knows the boring fare of an election year in jurisdictions where the date is unfixed. Analysts go to extraordinary lengths to attribute movement in any piece economic data through the frame of election uncertainty.
It gets ridiculous. Every day the papers are filled with this business group or that, this opposition politician or that, calling for a date to be fixed to give the country ‘certainty’.
Well now they have it. Barring some extraordinary event or something genuinely out of the Prime Minister’s hands, everyone in Australia can plan on the basis the election is 14 September.
Businesses can invest on that basis, families can factor it in. And both football grand final weekends have been spared, so even that bit of uncertainty has been removed.
So now with the usual election year uncertainty over timing gone, we can cross our fingers for an ideas election.
An election that pits against each other dramatically different visions of how we grow and share prosperity; how best we reform our schools and disability services; how we arrange our industrial relations; and how we re-prioritise the Budget to pay for things when the tax take is historically low.
It’s a big test for Tony Abbott, who has relied on process and politics, smear and slogan, naysaying and negativity for so long that he can’t find a new cloak of positivity that fits his frame.
Gone now is any excuse for vague generalities instead of properly constituted policies. He has all the time he needs to properly cost and fund his plans. This raises the bar on Joe Hockey too, who so far has lacked the work ethic or influence over his colleagues to make the necessary savings.
No longer can Coalition politicians fill their doorstop interviews with the process and politics of election timing when so much of that conversation has now been taken away.
Starting tomorrow, this clears the way for a detailed policy plan from Abbott in his National Press Club speech. It needs to be far more substantial than the platitudes he spoke to the people of Western Sydney last weekend.
Abbott has been chasing an early election for two years now, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the last one. His entire political strategy has been built on it, cloaked in the language of certainty and predictability.
Since the implementation of the carbon price it’s been clear that negativity has a shelf-life and Abbott has reached it. Barring extraordinary events he’s left without an early election but with the certainty he claims the nation craves.
A longer run-up to the election suits Gillard and the country simultaneously. She has more policy runs on the board to date and a more substantial plan for the rest of the year which encompasses schools and disability reform, fiscal responsibility and more.
The extraordinary announcement of the election date so early shows how desperate she is for an argument over policy.
This will also be a big test for the commentariat. Having spent the summer calling rightly for an election year that debates the big issues, they now have a choice. They have almost nine months now to help ensure the country focuses on policy. Or they can criticise her on process grounds, for showing her cards so early in the game.
I hope for a focus on policy but form points to politics. Gillard will be criticised for ceding a prime ministerial advantage. Some will say the uncertainty over the outcome remains and we should have an election sooner rather than later.
The PM has done well to ignore them.
Of course, four year fixed terms would fix this for good. But in today’s combative political environment and with insufficient momentum for this type of constitutional change this reform remains on the distant horizon.
More than anything, longer fixed terms would deliver the certainty people crave without the bold and necessary theatrics of the Prime Minister’s January surprise.
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