SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday broke with tradition and announced the nation would go to the polls Sept. 14, saying she wanted to give “shape and order” to the year.
Australians usually know only weeks before when an election will be held, but the Labor leader, whose minority government holds power by only a narrow margin, surprised pundits by ending speculation and announcing a date.
“I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign, quite the opposite,” Gillard told the National Press Club in Canberra during a speech setting out Labor’s priorities in the year ahead. “It should be clear to all which are the days of governing, and which are the days of campaigning.”
Opinion polls suggest Gillard, who made global headlines last year with a fiery speech about misogyny on the floor of Parliament, will lose the election to conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.
She stressed that declaring the date of the vote would give individuals, businesses and investors the ability to plan ahead, saying, “It gives shape and order to the year, and enables it to be one not of fevered campaigning, but of cool and reasoned deliberation.”
Parliament will be dissolved Aug. 12.
Gillard, the nation’s first female prime minister, last went to the polls in 2010, just weeks after she staged an overnight party room coup against her former leader and then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. But the Welsh-born ex-lawyer failed to win over an electorate still stunned by her ousting of the popular Rudd, and the elections resulted in a hung Parliament that forced her into a coalition with independents to retain power.
Gillard noted that even when the “hysteria” regarding the 2010 election was at its peak, she had always said Parliament would serve a full three-year term and did not think it was right to create a “guessing game” on the poll date.
“So in the interest of certainty, in the interest of transparency, in the interest of good government I have made the date clear today,” said Gillard, wearing glasses for the first time in fronting the media.
The 51-year-old has struggled in opinion polls, particularly after she introduced a pollution tax for industry to combat climate change despite promising there would be no carbon tax if she was elected. The latest Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper earlier this month found that Labor had about 49 percent of the vote compared with 51 percent for the Abbott-led opposition.
The flame-haired Gillard has also survived speculation about her leadership within Labor — trouncing Rudd by 71 votes to 31 when he challenged her for the party’s top post in February 2012.
Australian prime ministers traditionally name the election at a date to their political advantage, but Gillard said that by announcing the schedule this early, the opposition would have the necessary time to develop and cost its policies.
“Not everything about the tenor and temperature of debate this year is in my control,” Gillard said. “But I can act to clear away the carry-on that comes with speculation about when the election will be held. And I can act to create an environment in which the nation’s eyes are more easily focused on the policies — not the petty politics.”