Tony Abbott: ham-fisted.

Tony Abbott: ham-fisted. Photo: Andrew Meares

The same December night General Motors signed the death warrant of Holden, one of Tony Abbott's most senior ministers went looking for love.

While thousands of auto workers began contemplating Christmas with a new uncertainty, the minister texted journalists, ''I got the tone right today, what do you think?''

Such needy egotism would barely be worth mentioning, were it not juxtaposed against the life-altering depth-charge that Holden's demise represents for many Australians.

Kevin Rudd: empty campaign.

Kevin Rudd: empty campaign. Photo: Andrew Meares

Contrary to Labor's characterisation, the car-maker's closure was actually decided in Detroit, but like most everything else in the 2013 political year, it was also mired in our now deeply polarised politics.

A new generation of Liberals was contemptuous of the heavily unionised auto industry and its co-dependent business model reliant on constant government assistance.

In the end, the new government's decision to hold its nerve and let the mainstay of Australia's postwar political economy slip into history was as brave as it was cold.

Julia Gillard: missteps kept coming.

Julia Gillard: missteps kept coming.

But in the short-term it just added to a growing sense for voters that they'd elected a kind of anti-government - one which stood more determinedly against things than for them. It was against the minority Parliament and everything it produced. It was against the carbon tax, the mining tax, the education funding model (until it wasn't), the NBN, climate science, and now, in power itself, it was even against the car industry.

The departure of Holden bookended a year which began with renewed hope for the ALP. Its faint pulse had strengthened from the middle of 2012 when the sky stubbornly refused to fall in with the start of the carbon price.

Somewhat laughably, what was going to be a wrecking ball for the economy morphed into a slower but equally lethal python squeeze. The chasm between such imagery and the equanimity with which the carbon price was absorbed cost the opposition leader much of his personal standing.

The result was an Indian summer for Julia Gillard, and it set up 2013 in new and interesting ways. Despite a horror term, Gillard now eyed the possibility that in the end, voters might baulk before installing him if she could just give them enough reason to stick.

But her eagerness begat another classic error: the crazy-brave decision to open the political year on January 30 in setting the election for September 14.

Bold, imaginative, or just mad, the idea had several elements. First, she wanted to wrong-foot Abbott from the start of the election year. Second, she hoped to forestall any talk of a leadership change by placing her own party on a pre-election footing. And third, she wanted to fence off some time to leverage the authority of office.

The focus would be on voters and on implementing long overdue reform in areas such as disability insurance, school funding and skills. ''It should be clear to all which are the days of governing, and which are the days of campaigning,'' she told the National Press Club.

Yet it was Gillard herself who revealed just three days later a reshuffle forced by the departures of her attorney-general Nicola Roxon and Senate leader Chris Evans. Immediately, Labor went straight back to talking about itself. And, of course, that meant demotions and bad blood - for which there would be a heavy price exacted.

The return to normal dysfunction brought to mind John Howard's cutting lament that voters had got just ''five minutes of economic sunshine'' out of Paul Keating before things had turned grey again.

Gillard's period of non-campaigning barely lasted that long and was already being seen for the stunt it was when she embarked on an ill-conceived campaign swing into western Sydney. According to a senior Labor figure, the week-long encampment at the Rooty Hill Novotel/RSL complex was always headed for disaster.

''The people in the outer-west, who by the way commute every day, thought it was stupid that the PM had to base herself there to get anything done, even though she has a Sydney residence,'' said one exasperated MP. ''It said it all. It was like declaring they lived in another country.''

And her reassurance that ''Westies'' were not ''second-class citizens'' had the perverse effect of suggesting that the government might actually think they were.

Such missteps kept coming, as did the fortnightly polls which provided the grim countdown to Labor's inevitable demise. As Fairfax Media's Tim Colebatch reported in June, the government's descent was being led by Gillard herself.

''A comparison of Fairfax-Nielsen polls in the 2010 campaign with those in the first half of 2013 shows Gillard's net approval rating has slumped by a massive 33 percentage points,'' he wrote. ''This implies a 16 per cent swing against Ms Gillard as prime minister, compared with a 6 per cent swing against Labor. Labor is now polling better than its leader.''

Yet it was in this weakened position that a plan to curb media freedom was hastily promoted, plunging the government into a pointless political melee. It was another epic loss and a further dent in the Gillard camp's defences.

Inevitably, talk escalated. As Gillard's authority within Labor ebbed, Kevin Rudd's flowed. The shift was on, with people crucial to the removal of Rudd in 2010 now shaping up to reverse the process.

A first abortive attempt had come just weeks after the Rooty Hill soiree on March 21 (brought to a head by Simon Crean) but Rudd had dogged it after refusing to build his numbers. The second, decisive tilt came in late June - long after the point in the cycle when anyone thought a change could rescue the government.

With the desperate tones of Gillard's bizarre June 11 ''blue ties'' speech ringing in their ears - a transparently cynical attempt to reheat the anger of her 2012 ''misogyny speech'' - Labor MPs held their noses and switched back to Rudd. On June 26, Gillard's frequently brave but poorly advised premiership finally gave in.

One of the nation's most dramatic political days also saw the resignations of the two country independents who had held Gillard in place, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

Rudd's return was initially amazing. Despite an exodus of senior ministers which should by rights have destroyed his authority, polls rebounded. Doomsayers recanted. The party rallied. Gillard and her supporters showed the class her stalker never did, by staying silent.

Method had replaced Rudd's legendary madness. Or so it seemed. In a rapid sequence of calculated lever-pulling, Rudd Mark II took on the intractable problems that were killing Labor: factions and corruption in NSW Labor; the carbon tax; and boats.

For a fleeting moment, it looked for all the world as if the impossible was not impossible at all.

Did the voters hate Abbott that much that they'd forgive Labor's unconscionable division and indulgence now that Gillard was gone?

Adding to Labor's optimism was the appearance that Rudd had not been wasting his time sulking and scheming on the backbench but had instead spent it wisely, consulting, reading, formulating, preparing for office. He was not merely back, he was back with a plan. Except that he wasn't.

It turned out his fourth trick of pulling the election lever - after taking on entrenched factional power, dumping the toxic Gillard carbon tax a year early, and outmuscling Abbott on boats through the PNG-Nauru deal - was also his last. And even then, he'd missed the poll peak and was already sliding backwards.

What followed his August 4 announcement was a mystifyingly empty campaign which lapsed from pointless to embarrassing in places.

Abbott, on the other hand, was typically disciplined and rode his advantage all the way home. Determined to send a message of a new, calmer order, Abbott immediately dialled down the temperature, taking a fortnight to finalise his government's swearing in.

The contrast with Labor's freneticism was deliberate but the hands-off, ''adults in charge'' approach went too far, revealing a male-heavy government with little positive to say and feet of clay when confronted with new problems.

The budget emergency was suddenly not urgent and would wait for an audit commission in the new year and a mid-year fiscal statement which at that stage might also be a post-Christmas affair.

Abbott stubbornly refused to take charge of the MPs expenses scandals ensnaring several of his team. His silence was so obviously at odds with his rampage against waste and claims of abuse exemplified by the Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson/HSU affairs, it defied credulity. It was a grievous error of judgment.

This reluctance also saw a sluggish response to the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spying allegations - dating back to 2009. Abbott, who had made good on his promise to visit Jakarta, handled the facts of the case well enough - refusing to confirm security operations, etc - but he misread the umbrage in Indonesia.

There, his studied assuredness was read more as indifference to the insult of a so-called friend monitoring the personal phones of the President, his wife, and his inner circle. It was a tone thing.

But if the Edward Snowden revelations of Australia/US spying operations were bad luck for Abbott, the ham-fistedness of his government's handling of schools funding was something much worse: bad faith. And sheer political incompetence.

Abbott's most central attack on Gillard had been on her trustworthiness following the carbon backflip, and yet here he was just months into his term and preparing to break a key promise.

Lucky for Abbott, there was the space to recant, which he did, but not before voters marked him down for it.

Heading into 2014, and with major economic challenges ahead from unmet expectations, a slowing economy and a burgeoning budget problem, Abbott will be considering the lessons of his first three months and hoping to start 2014 with a largely clean slate.

He might start by telling any ministers looking for love to grow up.