It was the moment every “ditch the witch” obsessive had been waiting for, the moment for which so many on the Right, like failed shock jock Michael Smith and bankrupt failed businessman Larry Pickering, had long worked. It was the moment Attorney-General George Brandis, who used parliamentary privilege to call her a crook, must have dreamed of. The dunking stool was finally prepared: more than a year after she left politics, Julia Gillard would be grilled by a royal commission on things she had done in the early 1990s.

Some of her critics were physically present. Jonathan Holmes, when Media Watch host, had lauded the campaign against Gillard by The Australian’s Hedley Lamarr as “sober and meticulous”. He joined the audience an hour into Gillard’s evidence.

Twice before, Gillard had invited all comers to take their best shot on the subject. In August 2012, she held a media conference at Parliament House where she was bombarded with 80 questions from the press gallery, unbound by rules of evidence or legal process. Three months later, she did it again, and got 33 questions. Both times, the gallery pack ran out of questions and failed to score a hit.

Now she was up against the trade union royal commission, overseen by the Coalition’s hand-picked judge, Dyson Heydon, and his counsel assisting, Jeremy Stoljar. Febrile anti-Gillard minds must have pictured a knockout blow, a courtroom drama in which the famously steely Gillard would finally break down and confess her wrongdoing under the sustained pressure of probing questioning. More mature campaigners might have understood that such a moment was unlikely even under extraordinary circumstances, but hope springs eternal in the breast of Gillard haters.

Alas, things got off to a disastrous start before Gillard had even entered the witness box. Former union official Rob Elliot had at one time produced a crucial piece of evidence for one of the few vaguely coherent allegations against Gillard, that she had used OH&S matters as a cover for establishing trade union re-election entities. But, preceding Gillard in the witness box, Elliot suddenly, and completely, reversed himself. It was a “false memory”, he told the commission, asking that his “acute embarrassment” and “apologies” be recorded. “If it causes her any distress or discomfort, that would be mortifying to me,” he told Gillard’s counsel. “I now believe this is not an accurate statement, and I’m very apologetic that it’s made its way into the public domain.”

The Twittersphere promptly lit up with enraged Gillard haters insisting Elliot, whose claim had been an important part of the campaign, had somehow been leant on. “Not a good look all round,” another of Gillard’s pursuers, Andrew Bolt, glumly admitted.

“The witch-hunt failed to get any closer to its target than Gillard’s other prosecutors.”

Once Gillard was there, it became apparent over five hours that Stoljar had nothing more than any of the journalists who had gone after Gillard had produced. Like the press gallery, Stoljar exhausted himself trying every which way to find an angle against her. As if to reinforce the bizarre nature of proceedings, Stoljar began asking Gillard about things that happened in 2003 and had to be quietly corrected by other counsel several times before realising his mistake: here were events so long ago that counsel assisting could get the date wrong by a decade being subjected to forensic examination.

At one stage, when Gillard referred to “invoices” for work done on her home — allegedly paid for by the crooked Bruce Wilson-Ralph Blewitt entity — Stoljar feigned a “gotcha” moment, the gotcha being that Gillard had used the words “receipts” previously, rather than “invoices”. This may appear less than trivial to any reasonable-minded person, but it is of such stuff that the campaign to smear Gillard is made. But even that confection failed to work: Heydon had to intervene to point out to Stoljar that Gillard had in fact used “invoices” before. Stoljar also tried to make much of Gillard failing to obtain multiple quotes for her renovation work, presumably on the basis that individuals should be required to have a Commonwealth procurement policy-style open tender process for all renovations (not forgetting, of course, those too-frequently used limited tender and single source exemptions). Many of Stoljar’s questions revolved around the possibility that events Gillard wasn’t present at and didn’t know about could have happened, even events where the alleged details, as Gillard patiently explained, didn’t stack up. Eventually, he resorted simply to throwing accusations against Gillard, eliciting a polite “no, that’s not true”.

If this was just another round of Gillard versus the journalists, whiling away a couple of hours in the Blue Room at Parliament House, the cost would be minimal. But this is a royal commission, costing tens of millions of dollars, a royal commission that even with its dodgy procedures of preventing cross-examination of union critics to test their allegations, has struggled to produce hard evidence against the union movement (making The Australian’s smearing of Kate McClymont for reporting the unearthing of systemic corruption within the NSW Liberal Party by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, rather than the royal commission, particularly offensive).

It’s one thing, in the middle of an alleged “fiscal emergency”, to waste tens of millions of dollars conducting a witch-hunt against former political opponents. But the witch-hunt failed to get any closer to its target than Gillard’s other prosecutors. And for Labor, the trade union and entirely useless pink batts royal commissions — the report of the latter was so useless it had to be dumped while the government was announcing its Iraq intervention — mean the gloves are now off. When Labor returns to power, the judicial vendetta will resume, this time targeted at Liberals. What goes around will come around.

Naturally, the Gillard haters aren’t satisfied. “Crucial questions remain unanswered”, the Telegraph declared on its front page today. But Gillard could submit to an eternity of questioning on her bathroom tiles in 1993 and the campaign would never stop, because it’s driven by a deep and abiding hatred of our first female prime minister, not by facts.