WHAT does a government do when opinion polls point to a humiliating defeat at the ballot box?
It calls an election.
At face value this might appear suicidal, but when the election won’t be held for eight months there’s clearly a strategy in play.
And when a Prime Minister wants to grab the attention of the federal press gallery, it’s always handy to have a bombshell up your sleeve.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard dropped the news during her first major speech of the year at the National Press Club in Canberra, creating ripples of surprise.
Just when the room thought she was wrapping up her speech centring on the government’s fiscal plans, she announced an election for September 14.
‘‘I do not do so to start the nation’s longest election campaign. Quite the opposite,’’ Ms Gillard told a clearly stunned audience.
By setting the date now, she said, the year would be free of constant election speculation.
It would enable individuals, businesses and investors to plan their year.
The Prime Minister also hopes it will help the nation focus on policy rather than ‘‘petty politics’’.
This year Labor plans to bed down the first stage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, set the groundwork for schools funding reforms, deliver new budget savings to fill the gap created by falling revenues, build jobs and boost productivity.
‘‘This year we will make the tough, necessary decisions to ensure our medium-term fiscal strategy is delivered, and our centrepiece plans for Australian children and Australians with disability are funded, in this new low-revenue environment,’’ she told the National Press Club.
The date fulfils the minority government’s commitment to the Greens and the crossbench independents to govern for a full three-year term in return for their support after the 2010 election.
The opposition now had ‘‘no excuses’’ not to lay out full, detailed and costed policy plans, the Prime Minister said.
Most of all, the announcement overshadows Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s so-called mini-campaign around the country ahead of next week’s first parliamentary sitting of the year.
It also virtually kills off any remaining hope of former prime minister Kevin Rudd having another stab at returning to the Labor leadership, while denying the chances of anyone else hankering after the job of a Prime Minister suffering poll problems.
Ms Gillard’s surprise decision comes in the same week an opinion poll of marginal electorates across Australia found Labor would lose 18 seats at the next election.
That would reduce its numbers in the lower house to just 54, handing power to the Coalition with 91 seats.
Ms Gillard’s speech and Mr Abbott’s ‘‘real solutions’’ plan are light on detail of how the leaders would achieve their goals.
But there are eight months to fill the void.
Mr Abbott called a three-minute press conference to welcome Ms Gillard’s election announcement.
He said Australia was a great country that had been let down by a bad government.
Standing behind a lectern with a banner bearing the Coalition’s campaign slogan, ‘‘Hope, Reward, Opportunity’’, Mr Abbott said the election would be about trust, cost-of-living pressures, border security, job security and less business red tape.
‘‘It’s more tax or less. It’s more regulation or less. It’s less competence or more. It’s less freedom or more,’’ he said.
Ms Gillard briefed crossbench lower house MPs, including Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and Greens leader Christine Milne about the date before going public. All welcomed the news.
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said the Prime Minister was playing political games by announcing the election date early.
‘‘It is trickery,’’ he told Sky News.
Business groups are said to see the election as a great opportunity for a bidding war between the major parties over who can make the economy more prosperous.
Investors don’t really care which party runs the country as long as it provides a stable investment climate.
Bookies hit the election trail after Ms Gillard’s surprise announcement, taking bets that have the Coalition as firm favourite.