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Why ScoMo Is Calling This Election In SloMo

ANALYSIS: The political establishment has spent weeks playing a weird guessing game, and the one man who can put them out of their misery seems in no hurry to do so.

A strange feature of Australia's political system is that the Prime Minister retains a supreme power to choose the exact date upon which an election will be held -- and Scott Morrison seems to be enjoying holding this over the heads of his parliamentary rivals, journalists, and the wider political establishment.

Australia has a federal election every three years, give or take. The rules set out in the Constitution mean "the latest date for a half-Senate election is Saturday 18 May 2019," according to the Australian Parliamentary Library.

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But whereas countries like the USA have fixed-terms for politicians, a Prime Minister in Australia can choose to take the country to the polls earlier, if they see a political advantage in doing so.

Tricky election areas. Photo: AAP

Morrison extraordinarily brought the budget forward a month, in order to lock in an election in May. (Don't forget, Malcolm Turnbull also played games with his election date in 2016, lining up an intricate set of dominoes to call a double dissolution.)

The political game-playing has led some to say Australia needs fixed terms, not simply Prime Ministerial discretion.

All this is a round-about way of saying that, despite much fanfare and public speculation that the election would be announced last weekend to be held in early May, neither of those mooted dates came to pass. Things now float on in a political limbo, with  May 18 or -- despite what the library sets out -- even May 25 now on the agenda.

The Electoral Commission had earlier said that May 18 was the last date it could be, but keen-eyed observers noticed on Monday that this note has suddenly disappeared from the internet. Could it be on?

"Everyone knows that there's got to be an election on a Saturday in May, but somehow the Government thinks they're getting some massive advantage," Labor leader Bill Shorten said this weekend.

Morrison countered at a press conference of his own.

"The election will be called in April and the election will be held in May. We're not doing this with any haste and we're not doing it with any delay," he said.

"There have always been three dates, the 11th, the 18th and 25th and I made no secret about that."

Election on May 25? Yeah or nah? Photo: AAP

Many of the pundits, the experts and the talking heads always thought May 11 to be the likely date. In reality, and in hindsight, a later date made more sense -- due largely to the interruptions of the Anzac Day and Easter holidays between now and then, which put a dent in campaign plans and mean up to five days of a 35-day campaign are out the window.

But there's a bigger reason aside from simply having a bit more time on the TV. The longer the government delays the election, the longer they can dip into the public purse to fund advertising campaigns spruiking their latest budget measures -- like tax cuts, investment in infrastructure, and new health funding.

Not a bad motivation to draw things out (no matter how much it might annoy the one percent of the country who obsessively follow political minutiae).

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It's pertinent to point out that Labor has done this, too, leaning on the taxpayers to fund government ads in the leadup to the 2013 election, so neither party is without sin here.

Bill Shorten says he just wants to get on with it. Photo: AAP

But this time around, the benefit is to the government, and Morrison seems to think that every day waited is another day he might be able to cut through with a disaffected voting public -- or, in his wildest dreams, another day that a crack might appear in Labor's unblemished united front.

Labor has claimed this advertising could ring up to $1 million per day, so this is no small potatoes.

"This government wants to spend tens of millions of dollars on TV advertising to pump up their own tyres. That's why they're buying time," Shorten said.

Of course, whether the election is May 11 or 18 or 25 is no biggie for most people. You wake up, you go vote at the local school, you buy a democracy sausage for the ride home, and it doesn't make much difference which day this happens on.

What's the rush? Photo: AAP

But the cynicism and bald-faced exploitation of the public credit card is something that should be confronted and addressed. A million bucks a day is a big amount, especially when it's being used to essentially plug the policies of a particular party who have a vested interest in winning over voters, and especially at a time when the government claims there is no cash in the piggy bank to increase spending on -- among other things -- Newstart or dental care.

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"I noticed Bill Shorten's frustration yesterday, but you know, that impatience is born of arrogance," Morrison said this weekend.

It's not just Shorten who is impatient. While most Aussies don't care much about which Saturday in a two-week period they have to line up to cast their vote and participate in this wonderful democracy of ours, the date of the election is a fair enough question to raise when it is being delayed for reasons of self-preservation and raiding of public funds.

Contact the author: jbutler@networkten.com.au