One day in September

A recent burst of speculation surrounding a September 18 poll has prompted a revision to the Poll Bludger’s federal election calendar, which had given the date short shrift on the grounds that it coincides with school holidays in three states. However strong performances for the Coalition in Tuesday’s Newspoll (up 2 per cent to 45, with Labor steady on 40) and last Friday’s Roy Morgan poll (Labor down 4 per cent to 42 but the Coalition somehow stuck on 41.5) prompted excited talk that the Prime Minister would call an election at the earliest opportunity after the current session of parliament. This time though speculators had the sense to qualify their comments thus: "Federal Parliament resumes on Tuesday and Mr Howard will use the fortnight of sittings to put the political blowtorch to Mr Latham and then weigh up whether to call an election for September 18" (Phillip Hudson in The Age), and "the Prime Minister will use these two weeks of Parliament to assess whether to call an election at their conclusion – for September 18" (Louise Dodson in the Sydney Morning Herald).

At the end of the first week of the parliamentary session, the Government has worked itself into a surprising muddle through its rejection of Labor’s proposed Free Trade Agreement legislation amendment concerning pharmaceuticals patents, which it went from describing as merely unnecessary on Tuesday to disastrous on Wednesday. While the Government had calculated that a take-it-or-leave-it approach would prompt a Labor backdown reinforcing perceptions of the party as vacillating and anti-American, the effect has been to give oxygen to the Opposition Leader’s effective soundbites about cheap drugs played off against the Government’s arcane technicalities about patent law. Dennis Shanahan of The Australian, the only journalist to debunk the August 7 hypothesis well in advance and a man renowned for the quality of his Coalition sources, concluded yesterday that "as each day passes with drugs on the agenda, the likelihood of a September 18 election recedes".

Recognising its difficulty the Government is reportedly working towards a compromise measure that will clear the issue from the headlines at the cost of a short-term political victory for the Opposition. A week being a long time in politics, the Prime Minister may still be keeping open the option of a September 18 election announced next weekend, but the more likely scenario is another session of parliament from August 30 to September 9 followed by the announcement of an election for October 16, 23 or 30.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.