“Questions to answer”, apparently. So Julia Gillard strode from her office yesterday at 1.10pm, grim-faced, a little drawn, ready for battle with the press gallery, who had crammed into Parliament’s Blue Room, the aptly-named ministerial press conference venue. The strategy was simple: pre-empt the impact of the opposition’s much-trumpeted “grilling” of the Prime Minister over the AWU non-scandal, which had already been deflated by Bruce Wilson’s weekend remarks.

As time went on, though, it also occasionally seemed as though the Prime Minister had another goal. For so long confronted with vague claims about nebulous wrongdoing without any specific charges, as well as frequent misreporting, accidental or otherwise, of what happened, it seemed as though this was as much about Gillard directly hitting back at her tormentors as about presenting the opportunity to grill her. In this way, it often seemed as though it was journalists in the firing line, not the Prime Minister.

After a brief preamble to contrast the Coalition’s “relentless negativity” (check) with the government’s vision on such things as education reform (check) and the NDIS (double-check), she handed over to the hacks. But guiding her responses, in part, was her own desire to bluntly attack inaccurate reporting. On the first question, from The Courier-Mail’s Dennis Atkins, she went off on something of a tangent:

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“I have been defamed on a number of occasions with forms of words saying that I set up a fund or a bank account. Those defamations have been apologised for and retracted on a number of occasions. Despite that, those kinds of references are now littered through media coverage of all sorts: electronic, print and radio.

“I did not set up a fund. I did not set up a bank account. Any such claim about me is a defamatory claim and I’d look to this press gallery to try and show some leadership in standards and accuracy here.”

Gillard was also keen to dispel what she called the “emerging kind of consensus … that I need to give a full and frank account of these matters” by detailing the number of times she’d addressed them over the last 17 years, including in relation to a Liberal Party dirt file. She also used the first question about Ralph Blewitt to rip into him with lines that were always going to make it onto the evening news bulletins.

The Gillard on display was forthright but, mostly, contained. She visibly seethed during an exchange with News Limited’s Steve Lewis, her eyes darting from side to side as she watched him speak to her. “Get the timeline right. Get the timeline right before you draw implications from it,” she told him. “I’m just asking questions,” replied Lewis. “I’ve taken a lot of questions on this and let me answer your question,” she snapped back.

She only broke into open anger once, toward Sid Maher, one of The Australian’s lesser drones. “You completely misunderstand everything to do with this matter and maybe that explains some things for us,” she began her answer to him. He then tried to argue with her mid-answer, prompting her to demand he not hector her. Later, in question time, she referred to him, possibly accidentally or possibly not, as “Sid Marris”, a former colleague of Maher’s who left The Oz years ago.

There was one moment of pure stagecraft. In the shadows of 2pm, with the PM glancing at the clock, The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn asked her about the conveyancing of Blewitt’s property and then drew his own conclusion, asking her “what would be the big deal in him being given a mortgage through Slater & Gordon?” Gillard seized on it: “Anybody got any contention about how Ralph Blewitt getting a Slater & Gordon mortgage goes to any conduct by me, or any assertions of wrongdoing? What is the big deal?”

Silence. Journalists normally talk over each other in an effort to get a question, but here was a moment of pure silence, held just long enough by the PM to make an impact, before she adjusted her hands to indicate she was open to more questions.

By the end of the day, after an anti-climactic question time in which the Prime Minister was supposed to be grilled but ended up mocking the opposition‘s conspiracy theories, the gallery was talking about whether the Prime Minister had done enough to lay the claims to rest.

It was always an absurd question, because there’s never been a factual basis for the smear campaign that could be refuted. There will always be more questions about ever more trivial matters: the focus has now shifted to whether Gillard was somehow acting inappropriately because the name of the organisation she gave advice on had “AWU” in it. I mean, seriously — that was actually the subject of several questions yesterday.

But did you notice the goalpost-shifting in all that? Until yesterday, the Prime Minister had “questions to answer” about the issue. Yesterday she stood there and took question after question. For many members of the press gallery, that’s no longer sufficient. Now, the real test is whether the Prime Minister has “laid the issue to rest”. If the opposition are still asking questions about the issue at the end of the week, Gillard will thus, by that logic, have failed.

For much of the press gallery, there’s always a new test for the Prime Minister, no matter how often she passes the ones they’ve previously set.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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