Federal election: September 14

This afternoon, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the next federal election will be held on Saturday, 14 September.

Past practice in Australia is for the date of the election to be announced five or possibly six weeks out from the election – not more than seven months.

I’m not sure if this is beneficial to the ALP’s campaign to win back government but it’s certainly a positive step forward for the quality of political coverage. It brings to an end the mindless speculation about possible election dates before it had gotten underway.

It is unprecedented in federal politics but of course is now common experience in state politics. Every Australian state except Queensland now has locked in fixed term elections, meaning that voters, the media and poltiicians know in advance when the election will be held and can plan for that. It also eradicates the advantage governments have in calling an election at a time they think works for them.

There is one recent precedent for a Prime Minister announcing a non-fixed election date well in advance. In 2011, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced the date of the 26 November 2011 election in February, to avoid clashes with the Rugby World Cup.

The next step is to legislate for fixed-term elections for federal elections. Considering that every election from 1998 to 2013 will have been held between August and November, it probably makes sense to look at locking in future elections to be held in October or November.

This could be done simply by amending the Electoral Act, which already imposes restrictions on timeframes for calling elections. While a government could change this legislation, they would need to achieve a parliamentary majority to pass the legislation and couldn’t make the change on a whim.

One further step, however, may require a change to the Constitution. Constitutionally, Senators take office on 1 July, which means that elections timed for the second half of the year (as in the case of the last six elections) result in Senators-elect waiting on the sidelines for over six months while outgoing Senators continue to vote on legislation and hold their seats.

The original Constitution set the date for change of office to 1 January, and if we are to lock in recent history and hold all future elections in the latter months of the year, it’s worth considering reversing that constitutional change, passed in 1906.

The timing of the date makes a lot of sense. The last Australian federal election was extremely early and narrowed the window significantly. There was a need for the election to be held slightly later in the year to open up next year’s window and narrow the ridiculous ten-month gap between the last election and the date on which Senators took their seats.

If you’re interested in reading more about the election, the first twenty seat profiles for the Tally Room‘s guide to the federal election are now online and can be accessed from the right-hand column of this website.

You can also view the electoral pendulum, and a list of seats by state and in alphabetical order. I am currently working on my guide to the Western Australian election on 9 March, after which I will return to the federal election guide.