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PM digs in heels when push comes to shove

Date: December 29 2012


Chris Johnson

Politically speaking, 2012 was the year of a lost leadership challenge, a few lost shoes and a lost Slipper.

As political years go, the one just closing has been nothing if not eventful.

Beginning with the Australia Day riot outside a Canberra restaurant resulting in a blue-suede prime ministerial shoe going AWOL, the year ended on an even more embarrassing note for the government with the admission its ironclad promise of a budget surplus would be broken.

The Lobby restaurant near Old Parliament House was not the only place Prime Minister Julia Gillard very publicly lost a shoe this year.

In August during an event in Sydney, Gillard got separated from one of her high heels on stage while walking to the podium to speak.

Two months later during an official visit to New Delhi, she fell flat on her face when yet another one of her shoes went astray, this time by getting stuck in wet grass.

The Prime Minster might have had a problem keeping her shoes on this year, but she made sure she kept a firm grasp on her job.

Doing so, however, proved to be an all-consuming task.

Last year The Canberra Times was the first to report that former prime minister Kevin Rudd had a plan to get his old job back.

He denied it at the time but 2012 proved our report to be right.

In February, the challenge was on.

It came sooner than Rudd had wanted, but Gillard - annoyed by a pattern of undisclosed media leaks against her - employed a clever strategy that forced Rudd to declare his hand before he was ready.

Without more time to build his numbers, Rudd got walloped by Gillard and lost the leadership ballot inside the caucus room 31 votes to 71.

The challenge, though, saw a handful of Labor ministers come out in support of Rudd, necessitating a ministerial reshuffle after the vote, but which only punished a couple of them.

In March former NSW premier Bob Carr got installed as Rudd's replacement as foreign minister and he immediately took up the task of trying to visit more countries than his predecessor.

Meanwhile, Rudd spent the rest of the year on the backbench watching Gillard come unstuck on a number of fronts and hoping desperately the Labor Party would recruit him back into the leadership.

It never happened, but there were plenty of opportunities to pick holes in the government's tactics and agenda.

It was Opposition Leader Tony Abbott who seized on those opportunities.

In a year noted more for the negative tone of political debate than for its content, Abbott excelled.

The Opposition Leader showed how skilfully he could repeat the word "no" and he allowed the government no relief.

Uncompromising and at times personal in his argument, Abbott was relentless all year in blocking initiatives of Labor's minority government and in questioning Gillard's legitimacy as prime minister.

In April, Greens leader Bob Brown resigned to make way for his deputy, Christine Milne, to take over the reins of the minor party - a party which had found immense new power and influence since entering an agreement to help Labor form minority government after the 2010 election.

Brown's resignation was something else The Canberra Times first predicted, quoting sources who said he was being urged to step aside for Milne and that he would not be contesting the next election.

And again, it was something that was denied by Brown at the time.

The Canberra Times was also the first to report the rumblings about independent speaker Peter Slipper and how he planned to bring back the procession and full regalia.

But the Slipper story soon escalated to a new level when a former staffer instigated legal action against him over alleged sexual harassment and cab charge fraud.

By year's end the case had come to nothing.

The fraud allegations were dropped early and by the end of the year the sexual harassment case was thrown out of court and condemned as politically motivated.

The saga cost Slipper his job, first when he stepped aside from his chamber duties in April and then when he resigned completely following revelations in court of lewd text messages he had sent.

The month of May threw up a bizarre spectacle in the House of Representatives when Abbott and sidekick Christopher Pyne were caught on camera running for the door in an attempt to avoid accepting a vote from tainted Labor-turned-independent MP Craig Thomson. It was somewhat unedifying, but Abbott had made such a big deal about Gillard accepting Thomson's vote that he was literally caught on the hop when the Member for Dobell entered the chamber to vote with the opposition.

On a different occasion, Thomson used the Parliament to finally deliver an explanation about the case against him suggesting he had used his former Health Services Union credit card for personal use, including for prostitutes.

But his speech was light on detail and heavy on declarations of innocence and finger pointing at others.

In May Treasurer Wayne Swan handed down a budget that promised a $1.5 billion surplus for 2012-13.

The slim size of the surplus was adjusted down to $1.1 billion at the Mid-Year Fiscal and Economic Outlook statement in October.

The surplus promise was thrown out the door completely by the end of the year - Swan making the announcement the week before Christmas while the Prime Minister was on leave and the rest of the nation's collective mind was focused elsewhere.

That sheepish announcement followed a big year of political gamesmanship, the likes of which this country has never before seen.

The carbon tax kicked in on July 1 and, contrary to Abbott's predictions, the world did not end because of it.

Abbott's refusal to give an inch over asylum seeker policy saw former Defence chief Angus Houston recommend in August that Nauru be reopened as a detention centre for offshore processing.

Meanwhile, Gillard was pursued all year over her involvement two decades ago in the setting up of a union-connected slush fund - resulting in two mammoth media conferences and a fiery parliamentary debate.

The Prime Minister's most remembered parliamentary speech was her forceful attack on Abbott over what she described as his sexism and misogyny.

The address went viral and was hailed the world over as a win for women everywhere.

But the win the PM so desperately wants - the next federal election - seemed too elusive all year.

Terrible polls for Labor kept Gillard's prime ministership in question throughout 2012.

By the end of the year, however, Labor's and Gillard's polling improved while Abbott's began to plummet.

So despite all the political adventures of 2012, it is 2013 that is shaping up as the year to watch.

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