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.