Julia Gillard’s decision to name the election date in advance was regarded as “unprecedented” by a hostile press gallery. But Harold Holt — and NZ’s John Key — both announced the date months out.
Once the smart-alec commentators give a politician the reputation for lousy political judgment, everything that politician does is interpreted as indicating the truth of the charge.
Take Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to announce the election date so early in the year. I was present at her National Press Club lunch on January 30; I heard the announcement in the flesh. There was an audible buzz in the room.
One questioner referred to the announcement as “unprecedented”. I had a conversation with the journalist in question soon afterwards and told her I could think of two precedents, from Australia and New Zealand. Back in 1966 I was a 26-year-old employee of the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party in Canberra — I clearly remember Harold Holt made the announcement of that year’s general election long before it was due. Private conversations I had at the time were to the effect that Robert Menzies would never have done such a thing (it being disrespectful to the governor-general) and that this act gave us a taste of how the new prime minister would do quite a few unusual things to make it clear his style would differ significantly from that of Menzies.
After Gillard’s announcement the newspapers were full of rubbish commentary. But there was also this useful table in the Fairfax newspapers, showing the number of days elapsing between the election announcement and polling day for every election since 1949:
Clearly my memory of 1966 was good. The trouble is 1966 comes in second to 2013, so I checked on the New Zealand case. National Party Prime Minister John Key named the date of the 2011 general election on February 2 — the election was on November 26. Here’s the version of the announcement given by Wellington’s The Dominion Post (the press conference was described as “a surprise”):
“‘I believe it is in the country’s best interests to know the date of the general election early in election year,’ Key said. ‘It creates certainty for New Zealanders and allows people to plan accordingly. This is particularly true this year when the Rugby World Cup, the third largest sporting event in the world, is being hosted by New Zealand. Last night I rang the Governor-General to advise him of the election date,’ said Key …
“It was unusual for a Prime Minister to announce an election date so far in advance. ‘It’s a break from tradition. This is a big year for New Zealand. I feel we are doing the right thing,’ he [Key] added.”
Two points of interest arise: the number of days elapsing between announcement and polling day was considerably greater than the number in Gillard’s case; and consider the sentence “Last night I rang the Governor-General to advise him of the election date”.
I am one of the patrons of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Consequently I have had conversations with several constitutional monarchists about this. We divide into three camps. There are those who object to the whole idea of the prime minister taking over when the constitution gives the governor-general the power to dissolve the House of Representatives. They object to all of Holt, Key and Gillard’s actions. Then there are those who think the Key precedent quite OK, but object to the precedents set by Holt and Gillard. Finally there are those (including me) who think that, in the light of these precedents, there is no further ground for complaint on the basis of disrespect to the office of governor-general.
I’d say this: if Gillard had asked my advice I would have advised her to do exactly what she did, except for two details. The first is that she should hold the election on September 7 because September 14 is the Day of Atonement, otherwise known as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Second, I would have advised her to follow the precedent set by Key. As a courtesy, advise the governor-general first, then tell the nation.
Neither Holt nor Key attracted any public hostile comment. What a contrast with Gillard.