South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill is a relatively rare breed — a calm and optimistic politician — but he is realistic enough to go into the new year knowing his government is in peril.

The government’s performance this week, in the wake of royal commission powers being given to an inquiry into an alleged cover-up of s-xual abuse at an Adelaide school, has been unconvincing at a time when it needs to be clear and assured. It enters the final cycle of this term with the emotive issue of protecting children hanging over its head.

Labor hard-heads will also be aghast at the government’s shaky handling of this issue since the day it was first raised by the opposition in Parliament in October. Shaky has now turned to rattled.

Former Supreme Court justice Bruce Debelle’s inquiry investigates why parents weren’t told about the arrest of an out-of-school care worker for the r-pe of a girl for more than two years after the event. The inquiry goes to the heart of Labor’s credibility as a government.

Weatherill was education minister when the man was arrested, and says he is angry he wasn’t told about the situation. He will give evidence to the inquiry. It remains to be seen what Debelle will discover about the operation of his office and the department in relation to this issue.

Also concerning to Weatherill will be the uncertain performance of current education minister Grace Portolesi, one of the Premier’s closest colleagues. She has appeared to struggle with the detail of this issue from the start. When the issue was first raised by the opposition in Parliament, Portolesi said parents at the school weren’t informed of the arrest on the advice of police. SA Police soon contradicted this.

Then there was considerable confusion about whether or not there was a departmental policy on the issue. As InDaily reported last month, the Education Department has revealed that, at the time of the school worker’s arrest, it did not have a policy covering communication with parents in the event of what it calls “critical incidents”.

Then there was a lack of clarity about whether Portolesi had been called to appear before the Debelle inquiry. Portolesi said on Monday afternoon this week that she hadn’t been called, then on Tuesday she said she had been approached on Monday night, then yesterday she clarified that her staff had discussed the issue with Debelle’s staff last Friday.

Normally, this sort of confusion falls into the realm of a minor quibble. But when the issue at hand is lack of communication in relation to child protection, the public has every right to feel that the government is confused, disorganised, not on top of the detail.

Language about an alleged “cover-up” seems to have taken off in media coverage of the issue, but the whole affair raises more fundamental questions about management and competence.

Next year is Weatherill’s last full calendar year in power before the March 2014 election. He had hoped to spend the year cementing his credentials, methodically working on his agenda, establishing a vision for the next four years, and continuing to put pressure on the still-fragile Liberal leadership of Isobel Redmond. Instead, the Debelle inquiry will hover like a spectre over the government — and the Premier personally.

Weatherill has counted on his capacity to be seen as forward-looking, in contrast to a negative, backward-looking opposition. The Debelle inquiry will turn everyone’s vision to the past, with a likely forensic account of terrible and tragic events when Weatherill was a senior member of Mike Rann’s team.

It’s a poisonous mix for a government seeking a fourth term.

*Disclosure: David Washington was media adviser to deputy premier John Rau from January 2011 to July 2012. This article was originally published at InDaily.