The big advantage of being in office before an election is that governments actually do things which oppositions can merely talk about. A Prime Ministerial announcement of a new spending program – like the details this week of millions being given to rural councils for road works – makes a far better story than some promised spending if and when Labor gets in to office.
Debates in Parliament centre around real government proposals rather than some airy fairy policy wish list. The incumbent has all the advantages of setting the agenda in the months before the announcement of the polling day and it is normally only when the campaign proper begins that an Opposition Leader begins to get anything like equal time.
It is not surprising in this circumstance that governments traditionally have made campaigns as short as possible. It preserves the publicity advantage and the right of a federal Prime Minister to choose the actual election date weighs things even more in his favour.
The dangers in extending a campaign beyond the 33 days required by statute were made obvious in 1984. Back then a complacent Labor PM Bob Hawke subjected the people to more than 40 days of campaign activity. The polls had Liberal Leader Andrew Peacock well behind at the start but his popularity just kept improving as the voters saw more of him and when Labor’s victory finally came it was by a narrow margin. Having a lengthy campaign was a mistake Labor did not make again and nor did John Howard in the first couple of elections he called as Prime Minister.
Perhaps 2004 was a little different in that the normal formal campaign period was preceded by many months of virtual campaigning as Mr Howard waited for Mark Latham to implode and take Labor’s support down with him. That the tactic worked then is evident from the Coalition still being in office but the one exception does not take away the risks of breaking with tradition.
It should have been obvious to Mr Howard and his team quite early on that Kevin Rudd is no Mark Latham. There is no crash through or crash about Kevin Rudd. He has displayed a cool and calculating streak from the day he first started teasing his party about standing for the leadership. All those months of Friday morning television were enough to show that here was a politician who combined a strong intellect with an intelligent populism.
Yet Liberal and National could not see the danger. They smugly waited for the honeymoon to end. And waited. And waited. And then panicked. When the opinion polls did not conform to their expectations, Government ministers, including Mr Howard, sought to influence them by pointing to real and imagined character flaws in the opponent whose ratings would not fall.
And meanwhile the clever Opposition Leader played the game of role reversal. He began acting like a Prime Minister in waiting. He called his own conference with State Premiers to consider a national water policy; held his own summit on climate change; stepped up and with the eight State and Territory Labor leaders commissioned his own study on the economic consequences for Australia or global warming. As that intriguing Crikey Tuesday Top Twenty keeps showing, Mr Rudd is regularly within striking distance of Mr Howard when it comes to media mentions.
Part of the reason is the skill with which the Labor campaign team is limiting the advantage of incumbency. That said, it’s the climate created by the Government with its increasingly frenetic attacks on Mr Rudd and all things Labor that’s doing them the real favour. Messrs Howard and Costello have cast themselves as the Opposition. Their time is not spent talking about what their Government has done, is doing and will do but in attacking the other lot.
By their words and with their massive advertising campaigns they are giving Australia its longest election campaign on record. If the opinion polls are reflecting, as the Prime Minister told his party room yesterday, a certain tiredness at the same old men doing the same old jobs, what will the public think after six months more?