Thursday, January 31, 2013

Date set:  Gillard gets her gloves on

By announcing the election date, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is hoping to manoeuvre around Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's election strategy, silence her business community critics, and impose strong discipline on the party she leads.

In the lead-up to the Prime Minister's National Press Club speech, it was rumoured she was going to tighten the government's purse strings to finance her education policies and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  Instead, she announced a political calendar for the year.

Gillard is hoping to delegitimise the opposition's tactics that have stifled the government advocating its case throughout the life of this Parliament.  Abbott has succeeded in channelling public rage against Gillard's broken carbon tax promise and increasing perceptions that Australia's borders are not secure.

Unless the Craig Thomson or Australian Workers Union sagas bear legal fruit, the opposition's campaign to force the government to an early election will now appear frivolous and indulgent.

Even the most ardent critics now see light at the end of the Gillard government's tunnel.  In recent memory there hasn't been a Prime Minister who has provided such a long election timeframe, but the objective is naked — to wear down the opposition.

Gillard argued her speech was ''a plan to govern, a plan to deliver for modern families [and] a plan for certainty and security''.

Her plan is for the government to release its industry policy, drive education policy through the Council of Australian Governments in April, the May budget, the launch of the NDIS in July, the dissolution of Parliament in August and an election on September 14.

Gillard argued this ''enables individuals and business, investors and consumers, to plan their year''.  That may be.  But it is not her motivation.

Politically, Gillard is trying to break up the year into a period of governing and a short election campaign.

By announcing Parliament will be dissolved on August 12, Gillard has given herself 6½ months to govern, implement her policies and demand alternatives from an opposition that is keen to keep its policy powder dry.

Breaking up the political year also gives the government time to breathe.  Apart from the final numbers on the budget, the government's policy agenda is laid bare.  That leaves months for it to prosecute its case against Abbott and his team and make the opposition the issue.

It also stymies Kevin Rudd's ambition to return to the Lodge.

Throughout the second half of last year, the strategy of the government was to reassure Gillard's hold on the leadership.  Rather than appeal to the centre, Gillard and her ministers were hauling back Greens voters to bolster Labor's primary vote.

The strategy largely worked.  The government's poll position appeared to climb, giving hope to the faithful even if they never had an actual chance of victory.

It also held back a leadership change to Rudd.  There have been rumours that Rudd would consider another play for the leadership in March this year.  But he would have required evidence such a leadership gamble would have been in the best interests of the party, irrespective of whether he won or lost either the ballot, or the federal election.  Gillard has now squashed his chances once and for all.

The Prime Minister has drawn the electoral battlelines between herself and Tony Abbott.

Individual Labor MPs now have something to focus on outside of trading gossip and festering leadership speculation.  They have policies to sell, money to raise and local campaigns to organise.  With an election clearly in mind, MPs are not going to be tempted to stray from the government's official talking points.

In driving laws through the Parliament, the same discipline now applies to the independents.  They now have 71/2 months of political relevance before obscurity no matter whether they hold their seats and which party sits on the Treasury benches.

An election timeframe also hauls into line dissenting business community voices that are rightly reticent to speak out during an election campaign without the risk they draw the ire of either party.

While Labor is expected to lose, the timeline is so long that few in the business community would think picking a fight with the government doesn't carry the risk of retribution on September 14.

There was little in the Prime Minister's Press Club speech that was a surprise.  Her policies were known and the election was always going to be in August or September.

All she has done is focus the debate and she's hoping it will be enough to avoid being toppled by either Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd.

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