If it looks and smells like a campaign, then it's a campaign
When Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the National Press Club that she did not want to start "the nation's longest election campaign", the whole room laughed.
Because that's what she had just done. She knew it, the press gallery knew it, and the public knows it.
The announcement only happened on Wednesday but the intervening six days have been an eternity. One MP has been arrested, two senior ministers have resigned, we have a new Attorney-General and a new Minister for Immigration (the Commonwealth's two most contentious jobs) and now the Prime Minister is reprimanding Labor MPs for leaking against her Government.
But let's stick with the election announcement for a bit. It exposed pretty much everything that's wrong with Australian politics today. The obsession with minor media idiosyncrasies. Our parliamentarians' ridiculously self-important attitude. Most of all, the drifting aimlessness of the parties. Julie Gillard didn't just reveal a date - September 14. She opened a little window into our current malaise.
There are three public explanations for why Gillard announced the election now.
The first two are briefly plausible. In her speech, the Prime Minister said it would give the business community "certainty", and spike the inevitable press speculations about the date.
The former claim inflates the importance of politics. It's easy for the political class to imagine the whole country lives on their every word. It flatters the politicians, who want desperately to believe when the government changes the country changes. It flatters the pundits, who imagine their interpretation of the momentous events of Canberra are of great significance. It patronises everybody else.
The latter claim ridiculously, hilariously exaggerates the importance of opinion columns. Are we really so obsessed with the media we think the occasional, harmless speculation about an election date hurts our democracy? That spiking the future column ideas of press gallery reporters is somehow a brilliant political manoeuvre?
If Julia Gillard's office genuinely believes so, Labor is in more trouble than even the polls suggest. For the last few years anti-media hysteria has grown out of control. Now all that marginal bleating about the "MSM" is starting to subsume the functions of government itself.
Gillard's third and final explanation for announcing the election date isn't even coherent, let alone convincing. Why would announcing an upcoming election date make it "clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning"? It does exactly the opposite. It blurs the boundaries.
The announcement has left everybody confused. Her parliamentary colleagues seem to have gone into a strange, half-hearted campaign mode, not sure where they are in the political cycle. Wayne Swan went on 7.30 the night of Gillard's Press Club speech for no obvious reason except to demonstrate he exists. If the Treasurer had something to announce, some new question to answer, it never came out in the interview. Was Swan campaigning or governing? Did he even know?
A "campaign" is not a strictly defined thing. It exists in the mind of the beholder. It's an attitude. That some state parliaments have fixed terms is irrelevant. In federal politics the campaign starts when the Prime Minister reveals the polling day. If something looks like a campaign, smells like a campaign, then it's a campaign.
Indeed, the launch of a campaign is the only way Gillard's Press Club speech makes sense. Labor has long hoped voters would eventually be so revolted by Tony Abbott they would turn against the Coalition. The Press Club address was one final ploy to up the stakes; a last attempt to try to shift the burden of proof onto the Opposition.
The Government needs the election to seem imminent enough that voters start really questioning Abbott's preparedness for government. But electoral attitudes don't change overnight, so there needs to be time to turn the public around.
Certainly, Gillard didn't just announce the election date at the Press Club. She gave a 3,500 word speech. The rest of it was a serious discussion with a few important arguments about the state of the Australian economy. Unsurprisingly people have criticised the media for ignoring all that heavy stuff.
But whose fault is that? Julia Gillard didn't come down with the last shower. She must have known people would focus more on the surprise election date reveal than her thoughts about long-term trends in superannuation returns. The Prime Minister couldn't have diverted more attention from the body of her speech if she tried.
Yes, we've got to the stage that people are blaming the press for what politicians do.
Labor people want Tony Abbott's Coalition to be subjected to more scrutiny. That's fair enough. The Coalition has been calling for an early election for years, and we've a right to see more of what they'll do in government, not just how much they think Julia Gillard is a bad prime minister.
So for all its flaws Gillard's early announcement gambit could work. Even if it doesn't, what has the Government got to lose?
But let's not pretend it isn't an explicitly political gesture, only made possible by our sickly and dissatisfied national political culture.
This article first appeared on The Drum on 5/1/13 at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4501278.html