I f there's a certainty about Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, it's her unpredictability. In a surprising first for the nation she recently announced the date of the federal election as the 14th of September 2013 - almost eight months away. Normally electioneering would commence after writs are issued to the Governor General on August 12, but in reality the PM's decision now means the nation and the pollies are on a campaign footing for 30 weeks. Clever stuff say some pundits, disastrous say others. Some say it won't make any difference to the outcome of the election.
Gillard told journalists at the Canberra Press Club she hopes it will help create a climate of certainty for business and give voters the opportunity to focus over the course of the year on policies and not petty politics. While this is undoubtedly true her political motive has more to do with the government's poor standing in the polls. She hopes that by exposing the opposition's policies (or lack of) to the public gaze and perhaps force opposition leader Tony Abbott to release his policy costings early she can do a Paul Keating and 'do him slowly'. Simply put she's playing catch-up politics but has now given herself plenty of time to do it.
Another certainty will be the public gradually losing interest after the initial reaction to the announcement. This will leave the political pundits, bloggers and shock jock ranters to carry the day and fight the fight - the ordinary punter's interest in politics doesn't go much beyond headlines and the hip pocket. Such an attitude is a pity considering how important this election will be in terms of which side sets the ideological agenda for the future. It will be a death battle between two bitter rivals who ironically used to have a good deal of personal respect for each other. Another important consideration should be the values and ideological nature of the alternative government - as the metaphorical love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, Abbott may well prove to be the most Right Wing prime minister in the nation's history.
The success of Ms Gillard's early call will depend on how disciplined Mr Abbott can be in keeping his cards close to his chest. For this reason political tactics will be as important as the parties' overall strategies. Thus far Abbott has proved to be a deft hand at picking the eyes out of Labor, but whether he can sustain the assault and look prime ministerial at the same time awaits to be seen. One suspects his impatience for the job and demonstrated weakness on policy detail may prove to be his achilles heel over the course of this eternal election campaign.
Both leaders have obvious strengths and weaknesses - Gillard is a natural negotiator, brilliant at striking a deal, but her aptitude for leadership has been questioned as has her political judgement. Tony Abbott is a highly astute tactician who instinctively knows how to get to his opponents, but his reputation as an attack dog and "one trick pony" to quote Graham Richardson is well deserved. His unpopularity precedes him, in no small way due to his assault on the republic referendum and his involvement in a slush fund set up to destroy Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party. His complicity in the Ashby affair is another example. Former Fairfax journalist, Margo Kingston, has been active in raising awareness of those issues (read here). Abbott out of necessity will be smothered by advisors bent on ensuring he doesn't put a foot wrong, and no doubt he will be receiving plenty of advice from his mentor, John Howard, on how to roll up into a little ball.
Leaders aside the media too will play a crucial role in determining the processes of the campaigns and outcome of the election. In an ideal world media outlets one and all would provide balanced, objective coverage of all political and current affairs events, however the reality is quite different. News Ltd in particular is transparent in its virulent support for political conservatism. With 65% ownership of the country's newspapers it is the elephant in the room and one that has no qualms in throwing its weight around. It must be said the centre-left Fairfax papers and the ABC are not engaging the hearts and minds of the people as effectively as The Australian and News Ltd tabloids. Thus it seems a 4th estate battle is crucial if the nation is to avoid being maneuvered towards a Right Wing zeitgeist.
Then there is the airwaves. Often written off as quirky political aberrations the shock jocks of talk back radio, in particular 2GB, have far more influence than given credit for. Their frenetic anti-Gillard sermons filled with confected rage and spite seeps into the consciousness of the working class Right and spreads like a virus from there. 2GB itself virtually acts as a propaganda unit for the Coalition. With its stable of male, white, Anglo-Saxon, conservative ranters they propagandise their listeners with contempt. Western Sydney is a prime example of their power and their reach is now national. For the sake of the nation it is incumbent upon Fairfax papers and the ABC more than ever to challenge the legitimacy of shock jock opinon. A concerted effort is needed.
Without a crystal ball the election result nevertheless seems to be a forgone conclusion. An Abbott led Coalition will sweep into power on September 14. The Labor government has two hopes. It must trust in Julia Gillard to damage Tony Abbott to such a degree that the voting public will be unwilling to risk him as Prime Minister. The other hope rests with the centre-left media. They must take on News Ltd and the shock jocks with all their resources. The ABC especially has its future to think about. Professor Robert Manne once expressed his frustration at the SMH and The Age not taking the fight up to News Ltd. Now is the time. And Julia Gillard, the ultimate negotiator must use those skills and begin negotiating with the people of Australia.