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Is Prime Minister Julia Gillard moving into smoother water? The opinion polls may still show her behind - probably significantly so - but it must be at least a month since observers have routinely described her, or her government, as beleaguered.

This is by no means necessarily a result of her sexism and misogyny speech, but that of itself may represent a turning point of sorts, if only because it has made Opposition Leader Tony Abbott nervier about head-on attack.

Meanwhile, Gillard has had a period of reasonably uncritical headlines - over the Bali commemorations, her visits to Afghanistan and India, and Australia's election to a UN Security Council post. She has contained a number of events with the potential for bad headlines - mini-budget cuts, signs of a flagging economy, continuing border security problems, a noticeably-sniffing-around Kevin Rudd, and the final acts of the Slipper affair.

She rates personally well ahead of Abbott. Whether this will ultimately be reflected in voting intentions is by no means clear, although one pollster (Morgan) said this week that Labor was actually ahead. Most polls have the Coalition at least several points ahead.

Only six months ago many observers (including me) believed the gap insurmountable and Abbott's election inevitable. An Abbott win is still the most probable result, but many will now grant that Gillard has an outside chance.

The despair of many of her colleagues was not necessarily at individual disasters - because political events are of their nature highly unpredictable - but at her seeming inability to win a single trick. Failure begets failure, inhibits confidence, makes people risk-averse, and makes observers expect, and see, the worst. A sequence of good days generates its own momentum, and can galvanise the whole team.

On paper, there are eight more sitting days before Parliament rises until February, on November 29.

The Abbott camp insists that Abbott has been in a process of repositioning himself, away from sheer oppositionism and head-on attack towards alternative policy and philosophy, and his kinder and gentler side. He has, in any event, probably made as much as he can from carbon tax oppositionism, persistent insistence that Gillard is a liar, and high personal aggression.

Ironically, though, some will insist that any marked shift in the aggro is a proof that Gillard has achieved some moral ascendancy over Abbott as a result of her misogyny speech. Yet a resumption of intense hostilities, as though nothing had happened, would almost certainly rebound against Abbott much more than a chastened response.

The problem for the pugilist is the feeling of being made to back away. He has complained to his caucus that she won't lie down and die; for the year ahead, he has to expect that she won't even be on the ropes.

Abbott does not have to be tamed, and Gillard may have to do little more than survive the next month without any great damage. Then she can, or should, sit down and get serious about her strategy for the year ahead. She needs better teams. She needs better discipline. She needs a more focused effort from the central agencies of government. We need more of the confident, off-the-cuff ''real Julia'', and a lot less of the painfully rehearsed fake Julia. And she needs fewer distractions from policy and program areas that seem unlikely to do much in helping her party regain the confidence of a slight majority of the electorate.

It may well be her own fault, but that doesn't matter now if she moves past it. There was the untidiness of the coup against Kevin Rudd and his own unwillingness to lie down and die, and some tough, and bad, decisions. But she increased her burdens by saddling herself with some poor performers, poor staff work, and a lack of focus. She has fudged dealing with fundamental problems in her own party organisation and structure, the reorganisation of government in her image, or strategic or tactical use of a huge public-relations and advertising machinery.

A Julia Gillard contemplating doing all for re-election would be asking herself how many of her cabinet ministers are doing things, and saying things, that will be helping the government over the year ahead. It is not only a matter of managing policy or programs, but whether they are taking the debate to the enemy, or framing the debate in a way that is to Labor's advantage. If not, are her ministers in the right place, or should they be there at all? Some, such as Peter Garrett and Jenny Macklin can put on bombast and faux outrage but their skills are not effective in the chamber, on television or the street. Others are not even heard.

Relaxed and comfortable prime ministers, not least those with political eyes in the back of their heads, can carry a few passengers - people who are there as a part of factional or regional stitch-ups, or who can bring to the table qualities (including wisdom and experience) not otherwise there. But Gillard is still up against it, and is entitled to ask herself whether she is getting real value for money from the cabinet performances of ministers such as Tanya Plibersek, Martin Ferguson, Joseph Ludwig, Peter Garrett, Jenny Macklin, and Simon Crean. Nicola Roxon may enjoy being attorney-general, but is doing nothing useful by way of policy or politics there. Tanya Plibersek has done a reasonable job as one endlessly sent off to do the media rounds defending the indefensible, but has, in the process, ceased to make health work as a political plus for government.

Jenny Macklin is not providing, or co-ordinating, the development of saleable political and policy ideals, even in her own field and specialty. Her ideas no longer even attract what passes for a party left. Her department is supposed to serve what ought to be a prime Labor constituency, but Macklin's political leadership is so poor a skilful opposition could easily steal it away, something which has already largely happened with the indigenous vote.

Stephen Smith in Defence, Chris Bowen in Immigration, and, perhaps, Tony Burke in Environment, may be doing their best to manage problematic portfolios so that they are not actually political liabilities. But Gillard is entitled to wonder whether that is enough in straitened times, when, once, Labor was the party of choice for managing each of these areas.

Wayne Swan and Penny Wong are senior and capable ministers, but both are poor at selling genuine achievement, with Gillard doing most of the heavy work. Politicians, performers and leaders in Finance and Treasury such as Peter Walsh, John Dawkins, Kim Beazley, Lindsay Tanner, Ralph Willis and Paul Keating, actually inspired confidence and led public debates. The incumbents may be of equal technical ability, but are not in their rank as politicians or vote winners.

Nor does David Bradbury, who seems to take up some of the presentational work by default, inspire great confidence in the Labor brand.

Gillard must accept responsibility for her disposition of her team, and use of it to best effect. She has, moreover, a large personal staff, and a loyal and attentive department whose job it is to co-ordinate that team, to know what is happening, and to close up gaps as they emerge. Perhaps her ''good luck'' in recent times has been by improved staff work, but there seems still a major problem of a lack of governing ideas and themes, road map to the finishing line, or structured plan to get there. Perhaps that's her Christmas holiday project.

Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' Editor-at-large.