The Prime Minister’s interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW yesterday
provided much for poll watchers – much obfuscation, that is. Have a
dekko at some of the transcript:

MITCHELL: Do you accept we’re into an election campaign now?

PRIME MINISTER: In Australia when you only have three
years you seem to be in perpetual election mode. We’re still governing,
I still far more of my time making decisions about policy and about the
future than I do about political point scoring but along the way I put
my case, I visit a lot of electorates, I’m spending four days in
Victoria this week and fair enough I see a lot of the country. One of
the reasons I’m doing a lot of this Neil, one of them, I won’t say the
only one, is that last year by force of circumstances I had to spend a
lot of time overseas and this year it’s different and in a way some of
the things I’m now doing are things I might have done last year but
because I had to spend so much time overseas, we had Iraq, we had my
duties as Commonwealth chairman in office and quite a number of other
very important bilateral visits meant that more than at any other
occasion since I’ve been Prime Minister I was out of the country.

MITCHELL: Well are you giving any thought at this stage to when an election will be?

PRIME MINISTER: Not a lot. Naturally I would be dishonest
if I didn’t say it to you, naturally I think about it from time to time
but beyond saying to you that it’s very, very unlikely to be before the
second half of the year, in fact as each day goes by that becomes a
near impossibility. We are due to have an election around about October
– November that’s the three year period but I guess anytime after the
middle of the year wouldn’t be regarded as an early election, it’s just
a question of fixing on the time as we get closer.

MITCHELL: Is the timing crucial to who wins?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t think it’s crucial, no, I think it
can have a marginal impact, it’s not crucial. If a government is really
on the skids then the difference between having it say, and don’t put
any significance on this, say the end of October or the middle of
November, I certainly wouldn’t be having it at the end of September,
that’s a pretty sacred weekend, certainly in large parts of Australia,
or the first weekend in October. However beyond that there’s another
two or three weeks, if you’re really on the skids another two or three
weeks is not going to make much difference. On the other hand if it’s
very finely balanced maybe there’s some tiny advantage and…

MITCHELL: Well you don’t sense you’re on the skids obviously.

PRIME MINISTER: No I don’t believe the Government’s on the
skids, however I do believe it’s going to be tough because we’ve been
there eight years and people get a little bit itchy for change after
eight years, I understand that, and it’s my job to persuade them that
it would be a change for the worse and they could put at risk the
economic strength and stability they now take for granted.

MITCHELL: Do you believe you’re behind at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we are behind on a two party
preferred vote in the most recent and the most authoritative of all the
polls. But I ought to say that it’s better than we were three years
ago, six or seven months out from the 2001 election we were in more
trouble than Ned Kelly.

MITCHELL: Are you looking for another Tampa?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m not looking for another Tampa.

MITCHELL: It did turn the last election.

PRIME MINISTER: It had an influence but we held Aston
remember, 14th of July, Labor should have won Aston if it was going to
win the 2001 election and I think by the time the Aston by-election had
arrived we had begun to turn things around.

MITCHELL: Will the Budget be crucial in winning it for you?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh the Budget will be important, I don’t
think it will be the only event that is going to influence the outcome
of the election but budgets are always important, we do have a strong
financial position because we have been very prudent and careful and
we’ve kept the Budget in surplus and that’s helped to build confidence
in the economy.

MITCHELL: Are you going to surprise us? Budgets tend not to surprise us anymore, will there be surprises?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I guess it’s, I’m damned if I do and
I’m damned if I don’t if I answer that, if I say yes we’re going to
surprise you well people will get a mindset that I can’t surprise them
and I won’t, and then if I say I’m not they say well how dull and
uninspiring and unexciting he really is after all.

MITCHELL: What does that mean?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that means I’m not answering your question.

So, what have got in all of that? Let’s forget the specifics
about what it means for an actual election date. Howard will go
when he thinks he can win. Full stop.

There are three clear conclusions to draw from the interview:

* The PM is very big on talking up his international figure status –
but note how he broadened it out to include the Commonwealth so punters
don’t just think of Iraq

* He’s playing a delicate balancing act, tyring to maintain underdog status but doesn’t want to panic his backbench

* He knows he pulled a rabbit out of the hat last time – and is dammed proud of the fact.

Now we can start extrapolating wildly. The Prime Minister’s
comments suggest that there’s a very interesting Budget coming up – and
some very interesting internal Liberal polling that says the punters
just haven’t been convinced by Iron Bark. All sounds fun to us.

Peter Fray

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