It was a strong performance from the Prime Minister yesterday, going toe-to-toe with the press gallery for what seemed an eternity — the transcript of the second part of the press conference, relating to the 1990s, runs to nearly 9000 words — but she was able to skilfully exploit two pieces of good fortune.
First, there was Tony Abbott’s inept performance on 7.30 the night before, which illustrated the reason Abbott does so few full-scale media conferences at Parliament House: that once off “stop the boats” and “stop the taxes”, he struggles under any sort of rigorous questioning. Abbott has undergone an interesting contrasting trajectory with Joe Hockey, who was once belittled as a “buffoon” in business circles but who increasingly looks a figure of substance on the Coalition economic policy front; Abbott, the highly educated, intelligent man of many conservative ideas, at times simply looked foolish on Wednesday night. No wonder the transcript hasn’t been provided by his office, where serious questions should be asked about how badly they prepare their man for media encounters.
Then there was The Australian, the chief organ of the campaign against Gillard, which stumbled badly and had to apologise to the Prime Minister. For an outlet with such malice towards Gillard, it was a strangely unmalicious error; the word “trust” had accidentally been transposed for “slush”. But when an outlet, and one that has made errors before on the same topic, is engaged in an extended smear campaign against a Prime Minister, doing the basics is more important than ever.
It created the perfect environment for the Prime Minister to go on the offensive and do something that it is inconceivable that Abbott would do — stand there and take questions until journalists run out of ideas or stamina. Gillard routinely holds long press conferences — Abbott likes to wrap his up quickly, especially if the questioning is hostile — but this was something else. The contrast with Abbott was clear.
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Christopher Pyne was still insisting that “questions that need to be answered” by the Prime Minister this morning, but failed to say what they were, like Tony Abbott on Wednesday night. The opposition had four question times this week, including one after her marathon press conference yesterday, to ask them, and failed to. One of the problems the opposition faces is identifying in what way any of the issues from 17 years ago have any relevance to Julia Gillard’s actions as an MP or as Prime Minister, something The Australian and other Gillard critics have also failed to do.
“I’m sure no one ever misleads the press, but they’re not quite the same penalties,” observed Pyne in passing. Indeed. The last opposition figure to note that was Tony Abbott when he was revealed to have lied to Four Corners about the campaign he waged against Pauline Hanson. Although, to be fair, Abbott said that he hadn’t lied, but that he was answering a different question than the one put to him, which was his defence of why he said he hadn’t read the BHP statement on Olympic Dam.
The Prime Minister’s session came immediately after she and Chris Bowen had confirmed what they’d previously agreed in principle, that they would make an historic increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake to 20,000, at a cost of $150 million this year and up to $1.3 billion over the forward estimates.
While the decision is the right one from both a policy and a moral perspective, for a government with such a slim surplus, and at a time when there are questions about the immediate future of Chinese demand for coal and iron ore and therefore mining revenues, it should have been major news. The Prime Minister, when asked, said we’d have to wait a full three months to find out, via the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook in November, how the government was planning to find $1.3 billion in savings over forward estimates. And that will come on top of the couple of billion needed over FEs to open and operate Nauru and Manus Island.
Still, that will get little attention. More luck for a Prime Minister who has notably failed to make it for herself in her time in the office.
One more thing: the breach of security yesterday, in which a member of the public, who later explained his concerns about “mind control technology” to the media, could apparently wander at large through the secure area of Parliament House and into a prime ministerial media conference, was extraordinary. The Blue Room, where the media conference was being held, is right near the Cabinet Room and the Prime Minister’s Office (which does, admittedly, have a security guard at the entrance).
This is the heart of Australian political activity. Parliament House ostensibly has very high levels of security, courtesy of tens of millions of dollars spent on protective measures. It can be an inconvenient place to work, due to ever-more elaborate security restrictions. And yet, a member of the public can get within striking distance of the Prime Minister, at a time when a torrent of hate is being directed at her among some sections of the community. Staggering.