PM's date drop puts pressure on Abbott to stay interesting

DINAH Arndt says: The room was aflutter as soon as the date was publicly announced.

Nope, not a wedding - or a due date from expectant parents.

Instead, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on Wednesday that the next federal election would be held on September 14.

The news sent everyone into a spin, and by everyone I mean politicians, their advisers and the media.

Ms Gillard insisted it was about giving business certainty.

The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, however, isn't anticipating any sudden change in the economic fortune of this state as a result.

Specifying an election date was much more about going on the offensive: Ms Gillard has put on her boxing gloves. By setting a date, she is hoping that Tony Abbott will be viewed and scrutinised as an alternative prime minister rather than Opposition Leader.

It also increases the chance of him stuffing up, or of voters getting sick of the one-liners.

That strategy was evident from federal Environment Minister Tony Burke's visit to Tasmania this week to deal with forestry.

On Thursday, he insisted the nomination of 170,000 hectares of state forest for World Heritage status was about jobs.

You can view it like that. If greenies stop chaining themselves to Tasmanian trees and protesting against the state's products in international markets, then the industry can get on with business knowing what the future holds.

Others consider it as another way to appease the conservation movement and Greens party at a state and federal level before they lose their best chance to make any such gains in the light of the rising popularity of the Liberals across the nation.

Mr Burke was asked by the media if he was worried about forestry becoming a major election issue - particularly in the traditionally pro- forestry seats of Bass and Braddon, where the ALP is vulnerable.

To paraphrase, he said he was worried about protecting jobs. The ALP has a clear policy on forestry, he pointed out, whereas the Coalition's only plan appeared to be destroying what the government does. "But what then?" he asked.

The next day, Mr Abbott was queried on a range of long-standing issues while he visited the fire- ravaged town of Dunalley on a whirlwind visit to Tasmania.

People will increasingly demand to know exactly how life will be different under a Coalition government.

Will the $400 million pledge for duplicating the Midland Highway really cover the bill? Would the Coalition change the way GST is carved up among states as Liberal premiers are demanding? How would school funding change? Or the economy improve?

Mr Abbott, however, will resist being drawn into giving too much detail away so far out from an election as it is typically forgotten by the time a voter ticks a box in the ballot.

He wants the campaign to be all about the trustworthiness and judgment of Ms Gillard.

Of course, 24 hours after Ms Gillard announced the election date, the headlines were dominated by the arrest of former Labor MP Craig Thomson on fraud charges.

That effectively removed any gains she had made in declaring a 227-day quasi-election campaign.

Let's not forget that short of calling an early election, Ms Gillard had to go to the polls between August and October anyway. Most were predicting a September poll already.

Mr Abbott was always planning to run a long and involved election campaign - without calling it such.

He's been on the campaign trail for months already hoping for an early election.

In the end, naming a date wasn't going to make a discernible difference for the punters who were always in for an epic electoral battle that will have more rounds than a Danny Geale fight.

My advice? Settle in and put your seatbelt on, because things are going to get ugly.

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