CANBERRA, Australia - Prime Minister Julia Gillard surprised Australians on Wednesday by announcing that elections will be held Sept. 14, in a country where governments have traditionally given the opposition little more than a month's notice to keep a strategic advantage.
In a speech to the National Press Gallery, Gillard said she wanted to create an environment in which voters could more easily focus on national issues by removing uncertainty around the timing of the elections.
"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, referring to her holiday break during the current Southern Hemisphere summer.
Experts disagreed about whether Gillard's unconventional move would give her an advantage in the elections. Some said voters would embrace her for making the early announcement on the date, while others suggested that Gillard had above all created a gruelling eight-month election campaign instead of the usual five-week campaign.
Opinion polls suggest the conservative opposition coalition led by Tony Abbott is likely to win the elections convincingly.
Abbott welcomed the announcement on the date. He said the elections would "be about trust," echoing his Liberal Party's campaign theme during its last successful election campaign in 2004.
"The choice before the Australian people could not be clearer," he told reporters. "It's more tax or less, it's more regulation or less, it's less competence or more, it's less freedom or more."
Abbott has promised to remove the carbon tax that Australia's biggest polluters pay, as well as the tax paid by coal and iron ore miners. Both taxes were introduced in July.
Gillard's centre-left Labour Party narrowly scraped through the last elections on Aug. 21, 2010, to form a minority government with the support of independent legislators and a lawmaker from the minor Greens party.
She said she consulted with Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan and senior colleagues to help her make the decision on the date. Two independent lawmakers who support Gillard's government, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, said they were informed of the date Tuesday night.
Gillard said that given the certainty of the poll date, the opposition would have no excuse to delay the release of the details and costs of their campaign platform.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the country's main national business group, backed Gillard's call for early policy announcements, after previously complaining that the uncertainty of the poll date in an election year harms business.
Australian National University political scientist John Warhurst said breaking with convention made Gillard appear in control and transparent, which would likely prove popular with voters who have tired of the guessing that surrounds the poll date in every election year.
"Whether she comes to regret giving away the advantage of surprise, only time will tell how big an advantage that was," Warhurst said.
Warhurst and former Labour Party power broker Graham Richardson both said the announcement would make it harder for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to attempt to replace Gillard in an internal party coup early in the election season.
Rudd, who was ousted by Gillard in such a coup in 2010, failed to gain enough support among Lab or lawmakers to topple her last February.
Richardson said the announcement would also make it difficult for Abbott to put off announcing his campaign platform and explaining how it will be paid for.
Senior opposition lawmaker Joe Hockey accused Gillard of political trickery and said it would backfire on her.
"She's defined the next eight months as the longest election campaign in Australian history," Hockey told Sky News.
While the early announcement was a surprise, the date was not. Gillard had to set a date between August and the end of the year. Sept. 14 had been touted by commentators as a likely date.
Oakeshott and Windsor said Gillard had agreed in 2010 to hold the next election in September or October.