'Gillard said the polls would take some months to recover after the introduction of the carbon tax.'

'Julia Gillard has had the opportunity since 2010 to step into the gravitas of her office.' Photo: Craig Sillitoe

Gillard sees herself as a hero of women. So what happened to the senator?

THE role of prime minister carries with it the opportunity to bring dignity and gravitas to your political persona while giving the rest of us a leader to respect.

Whoever occupies the role can use it to increase their power. Julia Gillard has had the opportunity since 2010 to step into the gravitas of her office. If she had done so, the would-be hero of women would have been able to ensure that one of her best ministers, Penny Wong, was not tossed down the Senate ticket by the old-boys' network in her own party. No gravitas, no power.

It is hard to imagine Whitlam, Hawke, Keating or Howard bothering to take time out on an overseas trip to give their opponent a belting. Yet this is what Gillard did on her recent trip to India.

Instead of staying completely focused on our agenda in India she took time out to have a quick (and I think misplaced) snipe at Tony Abbott over his meeting with President Yudhoyono in Indonesia. When she is representing us overseas she should have better things to do than engage in petty domestic snipes.

This follows a long pattern of Gillard relishing any opportunity to attack Abbott. When there are motions against her or the government in Parliament that other prime ministers might leave to their colleagues to handle, Gillard can't tear herself away. She should have more important things to do. This behaviour tells us a few things about her.

First, Gillard is a hater. Most people in politics have strong views; it can be a bit rough, and annoyance and animosity are always lurking. But letting the slights become the issue, letting anger become hatred that consumes, means you have lost a focus on why you are there.

Second, Gillard has let Abbott get under her skin.

Third, for her, petty point scoring is more important than policy. Again in India, while I think she was wise to pass up the opportunity to take up a cricket bat, she was unable to resist having a snide little dig at former PM John Howard, who was prepared to have a go but at the time, looked less than a master of his physical universe. The pettiness of it became crystal clear when, trying to master nothing more physically complex than walking across a lawn, she fell flat on her face to enjoy a grass sandwich.

Fourth, Gillard seems more concerned about herself than is perhaps healthy. The debate in which she avoided discussing the fitness of the former speaker to hold office, after his text messages about female genitalia revealed perhaps a true misogynist, is instructive. She chose to continue to support him and to avoid answering for that decision by alleging the Opposition Leader was a woman hater. The line that was delivered with the most vehemence was: ''I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not.''

The excessive use of the first person throughout the speech is telling. The chest-beating ''I am the women's hero'' looked pathetic next to her inaction in protecting the women in the Health Services Union.

There is a trend in Australian politics (and elsewhere) to make it personal rather than public. Politics becomes a debate over whether you like a person's attributes or religion or views on any number of single issues. We are deluded into thinking that we should vote for whomsoever is ''like us''. Gillard's behaviour only reinforces this idea.

The proper way to enrich a democratic system and its participants is to debate what would be best for all of us, to make Australia a better place. Not just ideas in the abstract but ideas that we can implement. Ideas in the abstract can be in your head, on a whiteboard or in a well-thought-out essay, but until you can implement them they stay in situ. We only get to the better place when they are put into practice. The PM's support of the Gonski education reforms, the Murray-Darling Basin reforms and changes to the disability sector remain ideas until the government can so manage itself and the economy as to be able to put them in place.

But even if the PM can stop the nit-picking, contain her negativity and focus on the national interest, she has another problem: her deputy, Wayne Swan.

Are there any serious commentators describing the Treasurer's latest efforts as anything other than a fiddle of the books? Swan has never heard of the notion of fixing your roof while the sun is shining. The Howard government came into office and progressively paid off debt. Swan has come into office and put us into hock.

It is true that some debt of itself is not inherently bad. It is also true that one should be able to manage one's money and in good times be saving for the bad. Of this, Swan is simply incapable.

That's why the Prime Minister is left offering us her commitment to ideas and not delivery.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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