SYDNEY — In the marginal Labor seat of Reid, in western Sydney, Julia Gillard’s decision to trigger the start of the longest election campaign in Australian political history was greeted with surprise — and not a little cynicism.
“She’s probably done it to head off another leadership challenge,” was the snap reaction of one customer in the Speedy Bean Espresso Bar as news broke Wednesday that Australia’s prime minister had wrong-footed the whole country by announcing the election date of Sept. 14.
The poll had to take place by the end of the year, but the hugely unpopular Labor government did not have to give the opposition, which has led in almost every opinion poll for the best part of two years, such a head start on timing. Gillard explained it by saying that she was putting policy before election politics.
“It is not right for Australians to be forced into a guessing game, and it’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability,” Gillard said.
But the skepticism in Reid, which Labor will have to hold if it is to have any chance of retaining power, highlights one of the challenges facing Australia’s first female prime minister as she seeks reelection — rebuilding voters’ trust.
“She’s broke a lot of promises, and people are still angry at the way she took office,” said one Speedy Bean employee, referring to Gillard’s abandonment of her election pledge not to support a carbon tax, which she later backed, and the machinations that resulted in the resignation of Kevin Rudd, her predecessor, as party leader in 2010.
Naming the date so far in advance will provoke greater scrutiny of the opposition, but it also robs Gillard of the element of surprise, one of the few weapons she had left with polls placing her up to six percentage points behind the opposition Liberal National coalition in the primary vote.
Political commentators say big policy initiatives such as a disability insurance scheme and education reforms are examples of her recent attempts to reconnect with Labor’s traditional heartland in an effort to close that gap.
“I dare say she’s lined up a few more policy announcements”, said Andrew Hughes, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “All of this is designed to make the opposition look reactive rather than proactive when it comes to policy.”
Gillard and her advisers have sought to contrast her plans and visions for Australia with what they claim is the “relentless negativity” of the opposition, dubbing its leader, Tony Abbott, “Mr Negative.”
Abbott, a Rhodes scholar and former amateur boxer who studied for the priesthood, has been accused by the Gillard camp of lacking values and being motivated solely by political considerations. Gillard also labeled him a misogynist last year in a fiery outburst in Parliament that went viral on the Internet.
That offensive has been effective, but only to a certain extent.
Abbott has low personal approval ratings, and recent polls suggest Labor’s support had recovered to its level in the 2010 elections, when it formed a minority government with support from Green and independent lawmakers.
Yet Labor and Gillard still have a mountain to climb to win the next election, say analysts.
The reason: its weakness in New South Wales and western Sydney, places such as Reid, where the Labor brand has been tarnished by a string of scandals, including corruption hearings against former members of state government.
A poll of Australia’s 54 swing seats, released earlier this week, showed Labor would lose 10 seats across western Sydney and New South Wales and another three in the state of Victoria.
This has not been lost on Abbott, who launched a mini campaign tour last weekend that brought him to Lidcombe, an ethnically diverse inner-city Sydney seat held by Labor with a margin of 2.7 percent.
“Western Sydney has always been a key battleground in Australian politics. It is so diverse that to win there means you will win the government,” Hughes said.
The U.S.-style campaign rally also saw the opposition leader spell out his policy priorities more definitively than he has done in the past.
Topping the list were building a more diverse economy to balance Australia’s dependence on its resource sector, and therefore demand from China, and getting the budget under control.
Reacting to Gillard’s announcement Wednesday, Abbott outlined where the campaign will be fought over the next seven months. “This election will be about trust,” he said. “Who do you trust to reduce cost of living pressures? Who do you trust to boost small business and job security? And who do you trust to secure our borders?”