There’s nothing new about election speculation; it’s common for the final year of a government’s term to be filled with conjectures about the election date. Prime Ministers who want an early election frequently use that as a justification, saying it’s necessary to “end the uncertainty” — as John Howard did in 1998, and Bob Hawke in 1990.
But this year is a bit different. Howard doesn’t want to go early — anyone as far behind in the polls as he is would want to leave an election till the last minute. And even if he did, there is (as I explained a few weeks ago) very little scope for it; it’s overwhelmingly likely that the election will be held somewhere between 20 October and 8 December.
The fact that the window of opportunity is so narrow means that this has some similarity to a fixed term election. The amount of election-related coverage is already huge (helped by the manic run of opinion polls), with no prospect of it being cut short. As Richard Farmer remarked last week, this is starting to look like our “longest election campaign on record.”
In principle, fixed terms are supposed to work to the opposition’s advantage: firstly because the government is deprived of the opportunity of manipulating the election date to suit itself, and secondly because it leads to a longer effective campaign and therefore more exposure for the opposition.
So far, it hasn’t worked that way in Australia. Three of the states (New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia) now have fixed terms, but of the six fixed term elections held so far only one (NSW 1995) has resulted in an opposition victory, and that very narrowly. But the sample is too small to draw any firm conclusions.
One theory is because state political coverage is so thin, knowing the election date in advance doesn’t help the opposition, and removing speculation about it actually cuts off a possible source of publicity for them. But with a federal election it should work the other way; if anything, coverage becomes so obsessive that voters get sick of it and take their frustration out on the government.
If you think of this year as a quasi-fixed term election, that may help to explain the government’s lack of traction in the polls.