It’s hard to resist the sense that somehow, Julia Gillard’s prime ministership is cursed. She has started the year in the same way as she finished 2011. All the focus on her leadership and its ineptitude, while Tony Abbott, an unpopular, facile opportunist, makes merry with her flaws and offers nothing of substance.

The decision to breach the agreement with Andrew Wilkie was Gillard’s, taken fully cognizant of its political impacts. The Australia Day debacle appears to have been one cooked up in her office, without her knowledge, raising significant questions about how it operates. That senior people within her office, up to her chief of staff, knew about the actions of Tony Hodges from soon after events at the Lobby but seem to have left her none the wiser is a remarkable failure, badly letting down the Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, it serves as a potent symbol of everything that is wrong with her government, despite its slow, steady chugging away at reform and its excellent economic management.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the actions of Tony Hodges. It’s one of the jobs of media advisers to make sure attention is drawn to the actions of opponents deemed embarrassing. It was his judgment that was the problem — that there was any particular advantage to be gained from encouraging a response to Abbott’s comments, and then deciding to act on that on a day when the Prime Minister’s role should have been entirely focused on being a national leader.

The opposition is busily overcooking the whole thing. The “formal” referral of the matter to the AFP by Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott fell rather flat today when the AFP promptly said there was nothing to investigate; on previous form, Pyne will now call for an ANAO inquiry, and then a judicial inquiry if that doesn’t produce the result he wants. Abbott’s declaration that it was the most serious security breach in 40 years was absurd. But it doesn’t matter; the opposition could relaunch the Salem witch trials at the moment and it wouldn’t shift the spotlight off a Prime Minister who can’t take a trick.

Naturally it all feeds into leadership speculation. Ever since the Labor conference, Kevin Rudd has needed to do nothing but watch the PM stumble.

Bear in mind some of the efforts from Rudd’s office when he was prime minister weren’t much more dignified. Lachlan Harris and Tim Gleason had to apologise to Brendan Nelson for “not remaining facing the television screen” during Nelson’s response to the apology to the Stolen Generations, after the turned their backs in Parliament House. Rudd’s office so alienated the press gallery with its constant and cynical media management, particularly when Rudd travelled away from Canberra, that the moment Rudd’s poll numbers succumbed to gravity, it turned on him with ferocity.

Regardless, it all translates into negative momentum for Gillard. The long-awaited recovery looks further away than ever. The Labor Caucus has been far more patient with Gillard than it was with Rudd; Labor didn’t even fall behind the Coalition in polling before he was axed. The same fate looks almost certain for the woman he replaced. It’s just a matter of when.

Peter Fray

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