Contained: Tony Abbott.

Contained: Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

VOICE level, hands gesturing but never punching, Tony Abbott was a man contained when pressed by a clever parliamentary manoeuvre to back-up allegations Julia Gillard had acted in "breach of the law".

In Question Time, style almost always trumps substance and in especially in this story – twisting on minutiae, distant memories and missing documents – the government was seeking a political win to catch the Opposition leader short.

Absent evidence, whatever case there is rests on circumstantial presentation and the Prime Minister accused Abbott of "a halting, nervous and ultimately contentless performance" after a week of inquisition and daring him to lead the prosecution.

But the Coalition insists it anticipated Labor might employ the tactic to suspend Question Time and force him to his feet.

The decibel measure was hardly troubled as Abbott quietly sought to show by careful chronology "unethical conduct" amounting to "possibly unlawful behaviour."

Abbott's careful modulation can be easily portrayed as being caught flat-footed, and that was certainly the interpretation of Labor spruikers circulating parliament's press gallery.

But more likely Abbott made a deliberate attempt not to gift Labor the vision of an Opposition leader enraged, fuelling the misogyny charge hung like a burning tyre around his neck.

"I have this piece of advice for the Prime Minister," Abbott concluded his 15-minute impromptu debating challenge. "This not about gender. This is about character and, Prime Minister, you have failed the character test."

The boos and mocking across the chamber certainly made for a stark contrast with the low cadence Abbott employed, and with his own usual parliamentary antics.

Gillard offered a rare interjection, turning to her front bench, "He's out of material" she quipped, prompting another roar, as Abbott drifted from events of years past in an effort to disparage Gillard's present conduct.

Anticipation built for her to unleash another misogyny moment – and Abbott was accused of being a "rash man", "a man who clutches for negativity and sleaze," of "being the sort of person who would use his brain rather than his political brawn in the interests of the nation."

The impression sought was for a PM on the front foot, confident and dismissive of what she repeatedly (more than 25 times) called Opposition "sleaze and smear".

"We are ashamed to sit in a Parliament ..." Gillard said at one stage, and whatever followed drowned out by the jeers.

Perhaps these are the words to sum up this entire episode.

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