THE BLOG

Cameron Should Not Do a Gillard When he Calls the General Election

01/02/2013 13:41 GMT | Updated 02/04/2013 10:12 BST

What would you think of David Cameron if he called a general election on Christmas Day? Among the politer reactions would be 'Did he really have to choose that day?

This the Jewish equivalent of what Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has done in calling a general election for 14 September 14. It falls on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, widely regarded as the most sacred day of the Jewish year.

It is the only time in the year when Jews are expected to spend not just an hour or two in synagogue, as with other festivals, but the whole day; it is also the one time in the year when even the most lapsed Jew will attend services even if he/she is absent the other 364 days.

What makes this even more problematic is that, unlike in Britain, voting in national elections in Australia is compulsory. Failure to do so results in a penalty, which can take the form of a fine or community service.

Of course, if there had been some national emergency that overrode all other concerns, then picking a major religious festival would be justified. However, in this case, Gillard has selected a date eight months away. Surely, with that time gap there would have been other dates available? Moreover, she has departed from the tradition of only giving five or six weeks notice for an election, so she was far from pressurised into having to select a particular date.

Obviously Judaism is not the majority faith in the country, but Jews are certainly part of wider society and play an active role in the national life, so why not try to avoid the one day which would prevent many of them turning up at the polling stations.

The same would apply with regard to all other major religious groups in Australia: yes, it might be hard to take into account the host of minor festivals each faith has, but do not go for their really big one.

It is true that the Yom Kippur date will not prevent Jews from voting completely, as it is still possible to send in a postal vote. But there are still two objections.

One is very practical: that not everyone is sufficiently organised to apply for the right papers in advance and then send them off by the due date. By contrast, election day itself is hard to miss with the media build-up in advance, and it is much easier to nip out - even in between whatever activities one had already planned that day - and cast one's vote in person.

The other objection is more important: as a matter of principle, a prime minister should examine major events within the varying secular and religious calendars before fixing the election - so as to ensure that as many citizens can take part in the democratic process as possible.

It is not a matter of upsetting Jews or any other particular group but the larger issue of inclusivity and engagement for the country as a whole. It well may be that this was not a deliberate snub, but that Gillard's advisers were at fault and simply failed to consult the religious calendar as well as all the other aspects they took into consideration - but this should have been one of the basic checklists.

It is certainly a warning to the British Government not to make the same mistake when it comes to call the next election.