The Australian election

Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stunned voters in that country when, in January, she set a national election for September 14, then nearly eight months away.

Opinion continues to remain divided over the reason for setting the date so early in an election year, but the release yesterday of figures showing support for the prime minister has slumped alarmingly certainly sent the Australian political chattering classes into overdrive.

Ms Gillard denied at the time the decision to announce the election was about shoring up her leadership against former prime minister Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd's supporters saw the issue differently. They believed Ms Gillard used the early announcement to remove that in-party threat so she could focus on winning back public support from the Tony Abbott-led Liberal Opposition. If so, the plan has misfired spectacularly.

According to yesterday's Herald/Nielsen poll, Ms Gillard now languishes behind both Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott in the preferred prime minister stakes. Labor's support has fallen from a predicted primary vote in the mid-30s to 30%, while support for the Coalition rose four points to 47%. The results also signalled that a trend, which late last year saw support drifting away from the Abbott-led Opposition back to the Government, has reversed.

While Mr Abbott's numbers rose in the latest polls, Mr Rudd - who Ms Gillard famously ''knifed'' for the prime minister's job before the last election - has positively leapt out of the background in the past few days, complete with several prime-time television interviews (albeit in all of them being careful to hose down any leadership speculation - and his own aspirations). Despite such protestations, given Mr Rudd's ego, it would surprise nobody if he had another shot at ousting an unpopular leader.

The Labour minority Government holds only a one-seat majority in the Australian Parliament, with support from a group of independents and the Greens. As such, re-election will be difficult for any Labor leader. Perhaps one of the gambles taken by Ms Gillard in announcing the election early was to stymie any possible return by former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull to the Opposition leader's role, in place of Mr Abbott. She may have believed Mr Abbott had made his run and was beginning to falter.

The Opposition leader late last year made a series of gaffes for which he was taken to task. Most famously, he was labelled a misogynist by Ms Gillard in a now famous speech, which millions of women around the world cheered. She may also have held fears about Mr Turnbull returning to lead the Coalition. He would undoubtedly make a tougher opponent to demonise in an election campaign than Mr Abbott. Perhaps the strategy was that delaying the election announcement until a month before an expected date would give the former Liberal leader time to make another run at the top job.

The numbers now seem to suggest Mr Abbott has found his second wind. And, interestingly, Mr Abbott's main internal rival features on the cover of a policy document the Opposition leader released recently. Mr Turnbull also features in Liberal television advertisements. Perhaps the two have kissed and made up. Downplaying leadership speculation earlier this year, Mr Turnbull said he had an important portfolio of communications which would be significant in the elections: ''We are not electing a president here. We are electing a parliamentary government. The Abbott government, if there is an Abbott government, will be run as a cabinet government. Tony Abbott is not going to be a presidential dictator and he is certainly not going to govern in the way Kevin Rudd did, paying scant attention to his colleagues.''

Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull, and perhaps Mr Abbott, Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd, elections throughout the world have become presidential-style, with voters and media attention concentrating almost exclusively on party leaders, often at the expense of policy.

Given the closeness of the race - both in and outside the two main parties - we can expect plenty of hue and cry across the Ditch during the next seven months as contenders try to stake their place. As most people here realise, the Australian election has importance for New Zealand. Australia remains this country's largest export market and the relationship between the transtasman governments remains crucial to the New Zealand economy. Kiwis will watch this marathon campaign with interest.