Political junkies are always excited by the prospect of an election year. The prevailing wisdom is that the political temperature will rise as the parties gear up for the formal campaign. In reality the campaign for this year's federal election has been underway for a number of years now.
In his first party-room meeting after the 2004 federal election, the Prime Minister, John Howard, told his colleagues to begin preparing for the next election. If evidence was needed that Howard governs to win elections, that was it.
Howard is a great believer in what he calls "perpetual election campaigning", or as the US political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have tagged it, "permanent campaigning".
Permanent campaigning involves parties in government using the considerable resources of the state to ensure their re-election. Those resources include government advertising and access to ministers for party donors.
The political environment in Australia is well suited to incumbents. A strong economy has given governments at all levels plenty of money to throw at targeted constituencies. The recent claims that tax cuts and new spending programs are unaffordable due to a tight budget this year are simply an effort to reduce expectations.
The Opposition can promise to match any budget giveaways or find a better way to spend the money, but voters are cynical about promises. Howard will be running on his record of handouts to favoured constituencies.
The election-year economy is unlikely to provide any upset with a happy medium likely between sluggish growth and the rapid clip that would force another interest rate rise. The new Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, is unlikely to become the first occupant of his position to raise rates in the run-up to a federal election.
Yet this year is throwing up a number of challenges for incumbent governments. Foremost among those is the challenge of the two-track economy. Queensland and Western Australia are growing considerably faster than the rest of the country.
In Sydney, mortgagees are dealing with a sluggish economy and last year's interest rate rises. The saving grace for Howard may be that Mark Latham's performance in his home city in 2004 was so poor that seats will be difficult to come by for Labor this time around.
The federal Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd, is well-suited to modern campaign methods. He comes across well on television and is knowledgeable on a wide range of policy areas.
Unfortunately, his permanent campaign for the last two years was aimed at ousting Kim Beazley. As Latham found, media honeymoons can breed complacency. Labor has some tough policy decisions to make in coming months.
Rudd's early noises on industry policy and industrial relations suggests that he is focused on marginal seats in parts of Adelaide and Melbourne. Whatever the attractions of a more interventionist approach to those policies in the rust belt, they are unlikely to make much difference in Queensland and Western Australia, which contain a number of winnable seats for Labor.
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