Illustration: David Rowe

Illustration: David Rowe

IT'S a wiggly old line, the one that Julia Gillard says has now been crossed. The Prime Minister's hands trembled in her cold stone courtyard yesterday as she consigned Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper to the margins of her political drama.

The right thing, the ''prime ministerial'' thing. Yes, finally.

A bold enough move to buy herself a little time with Labor colleagues who are seriously contemplating whether she can last. But too late to preserve credibility, or liberty from the penury of living hand-to-mouth.

There was an atmosphere of the last big gamble for a Prime Minister whose strong suit is political transactions.

Here was her latest show-stopper: reverse everything you've been saying in the recent past; press reset; reframe the discussion; put your chin up; and forge boldly on. Black can be white if you say it often enough.

Gillard is the Scarlett O'Hara of Australian politics. Atlanta is burning, but tomorrow is always another day. Hers is a resilience to be admired, but also feared, because there's a vacuum at the heart of it. No bridge is too far. No ''line'' will hold, because the rules of the game keep being redrawn.

Whatever her ultimate fate, the Prime Minister is breaking up before our eyes. This is the function of too many transactions that don't add up to a coherent whole, that don't tell us anything about what the government is. Instead, they tell us what the government will do, and that's more or less anything to buy itself five more minutes.

It's a rare talent to do right, and look mendacious doing it. Gillard achieved that yesterday.

She says she is about doing the right thing. I'm sorry to be blunt, but in fact she is about buying time, and clearing the air for next week's budget and a looming interest rate cut. She is giving up deal-making with a peace settlement. She is not embarking on Damascene conversions.

Yesterday, Gillard invited the voters to accept one more act of pure audacity. I suspect they are suffering now from audacity fatigue, and would just like some stability - one day, one hour, where they weren't afflicted by whiplash induced by the antics in Canberra.

There is no material change in either the Slipper or Thomson affairs that can be pointed to to explain the abrupt prime ministerial volte-face, apart from a backroom calculation that the status quo was untenable: a practical and political judgment, not a moral one.

Gillard is acting on an instinct that crumbling internal authority necessitates a decisive public show of authority. John Howard could have pulled this off, and did frequently enough when necessity called, because his identity and authority were secure. But Gillard can't seem to nail these epic moments.

Despair gripped the government last week, a fundamental bleak despair about the absence of options. Despite having ''resolved'' the leadership question only a few short months ago, forces inside the party were again on the move - sick of the diminished life and the terrible prospects facing Labor.

What would Wayne Swan do, a decisive internal force? What would Bill Shorten do? Would Greg Combet finally come off the sidelines and test his power in the caucus? Would Kevin Rudd marshall for the comeback? Could others be the beneficiary or the victim of a renewed Rudd leadership play? What of Stephen Smith, wronged by Gillard in the drafting of Bob Carr to Canberra?

Anthony Albanese - marooned on the wrong side of the Rudd challenge in February - had more practical concerns. By backing Slipper publicly for much of last week, Albanese was trying to engineer a dignified exit for the Speaker who had been a high-roller's gamble, now lost. Albanese was also tying up numbers in the House of Representatives for the budget bills, smoothing ruffled crossbench feathers, before catching a plane for Russia. I kid you not.

That's how we roll in Canberra these days. It's a plot you could not write, even if you indulged your wildest instincts in political fiction.

The government is gripped by an addiction to short-termism that sits uncomfortably with the fundamental coherence of its progressive values and its courageous ambition to govern for the future.

The addiction predates the current tenuous circumstances of minority government and its deals gone wrong. It is deeply ingrained in the DNA of the government, hard wired - and illuminated at centre stage by its political weakness.

This whole catastrophic cycle started with the 2010 leadership coup against Rudd - a contagion of existential panic that asserted itself even though there was little objective evidence that panic was actually required.

The government has two distinct identities - a policy legacy executed by good people with good values that gets not nearly enough credit for its ambition and integrity; and a flighty, restless, reflexive process fixation that undermines and diminishes what it is doing at every turn.

The two conflicting tracks must confuse and unsettle voters. They certainly confuse and unsettle me, watching at close range.

So what to do? Change the leader? On what basis? On what rationale this time around? Would it make any real difference? Would it just enrage the voters still further? Would it solve Labor's structural problems, or would it just throw another person on the bonfire who might be required to mop up after the next election?

Existential questions, and no clear answers.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.

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