Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announces September election

Gillard’s surprise move sets stage for lengthy campaign; WikiLeaks’ Assange to seek seat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 6:47am

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday set the stage for a gruelling eight-month election campaign, announcing that the nation would go the polls on September 14.

Gillard, whose minority government holds power by a narrow margin and is trailing in the polls behind the conservative opposition, stunned pundits by breaking the tradition of revealing election dates only a few weeks in advance.

The Labor party leader said the move would give "shape and order" to the year and enable the vote to be one "not of fevered campaigning, but of cool and reasoned deliberation".

"I reflected on this over the summer and I thought it's not right for Australians to be forced into a guessing game and it's not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability," she said.

As the nation's mining-fuelled economy starts to slow, voters face a choice between Gillard, the country's first female leader who came to power nearly three years ago, and her conservative opponent, Tony Abbott.

Opinion polls suggest Gillard, who made global headlines last year with a fiery speech about misogyny targeting Abbott, will lose in September, although neither politician has broad appeal.

Gillard, 51, has struggled to gain support, particularly since introducing a carbon tax on industry to combat climate change despite promising there would never be such a tax if she were elected.

Fitness enthusiast Abbott, 55, who briefly trained to become a Catholic priest, has promised to repeal the levy and scrap a controversial mining profits tax.

Other key election themes will be economic management, and the charged issue of how to deal with a record influx of asylum-seekers arriving on Australian shores by boat.

Australian prime ministers traditionally name the election at a date to their short-term political advantage. Gillard said the long campaign would give the opposition time to develop policies.

Political observers offered a mixed assessment of the wisdom of Gillard's manoeuvre.

"I see it as Gillard looking to impose herself in an election year," said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University. "It's a small thing, but it's about wanting to get on the front foot."

WikiLeaks said soon after Gillard's poll announcement that its founder Julian Assange would run for a seat in the Australian Senate.

WikiLeaks unveiled the plan with a tweet that read "Australia: Julian Assange has confirmed he will run in the 2013 national election for the Australian Senate", just hours after Gillard announced the election.

His mother, Christine Assange, was delighted: "He will be awesome. In the House of Representatives we get to choose between US lackey party No 1 and US lackey party No 2."

Assange, who announced his intention to stand for Senate last year, has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London since June, after claiming asylum in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sex crimes.