Date: June 30 2012
You may have thought that this week in politics was all about asylum seekers who try and reach Australia by boats. And what Australia can possibly do to address this.
Or that it was about a Big Bad Tax based on a Big Fat Lie.
But actually, it was about the Press Gallery's Midwinter Ball: hundreds of people crammed into the Great Hall in a festival of speeches, speed schmoozing and mood lighting.
This year, the ball was decorated La Dolce Vita style, with Italian foods, Italianate table cloths and a picture of a Vespa on the program. However, there was also a recurring theme of ''challenging preconceptions'', as observed with the following:
1. That Canberra is snoring.
Thanks to the late-running debate in the House on Rob Oakeshott's ''Bali Process Bill'', the official part of the ball with all the speeches didn't kick off until after 10pm - thus turning that ''nothing ever happens in Canberra after dark'' adage right on its head. There was warm chardonnay, there was dancing, there were petit fours. Take that, New York!
2. That politics is always combative.
Ordinarily, people see politicians and journalists as enemies (e.g. ''You won't answer my probing and thoughtful question'' v ''You won't report on the complexities of this important policy announcement'', leading to ''You're a disgrace to democracy!'' v ''No, you're a disgrace!'').
And the tribes of Parliament House are not just supposed to be anathema to one another but also to themselves. It's not like Liberals and Labors get along, right?
Yet, at the Midwinter Ball, there was Wayne Swan sitting on a table with Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop over with Kevin Rudd.
You had ministers chatting to journos, backbenchers catching up with reporters - all having a most convivial time under the soft glow of the chandeliers (that had been imported for the evening).
Even though the Great Hall was filled to the brim with table upon table, people hardly spent any time sitting down: movers, shakers and a lot of people I didn't recognise were up on their feet creating meet-and-greet traffic jams.
These people really wanted to socialise with each other.
3. That Julia Gillard can't be ''real''.
The Prime Minister arrived at the ball after a heck of a week and it was only Wednesday.
She'd come back from Brazil to more precarious poll news, people were already twitchy about the carbon tax and last Thursday's boat tragedy. And then another boat capsized.
But despite a tense afternoon in the House, trying to legislate a response, Gillard turned up looking cool and calm, not to mention extremely glamorous in a back-bearing sparkly frock.
When she finally took to the stage, she told the crowd that she had two speeches: one that was serious and another that contained jokes. She asked for a show of hands and the funny version won.
The PM began by sympathising with the job losses hanging over the media, and observing - deadpan - that she had no idea what it would feel like to wake up everyday and wonder if she still had a job.
Gillard then proceeded to talk for about 15 minutes without notes.
Cracking lines about how the media had missed a few big stories. Like the fact she was a vampire (have you ever seen her in direct sunlight?).
And that she was having an affair with News Limited journalist Dennis Shanahan (she's not really). With a sense of humour about herself and her critics, Gillard was uber relaxed. And she had the whole room eating out the palm of her prime ministerial hand.
By comparison, Abbott, who also arrived late from the House, fell flatter than a pancake on a diet.
He read from a prepared speech, stumbling a couple of times early on, and seemed thrown that the PM had won so many laughs.
The Opposition Leader couldn't get out of campaign mode either. When praising the charity work of the ball, he also talked up his own fund-raising efforts with Pollie Pedal. And he finished with a (not so veiled) gag about how he wanted to be prime minister.
Gillard totally eclipsed Abbott. And yet it is totally irrelevant.
The Gillard of the ball - the witty, compelling, down-to-earth PM - is rarely seen by the public.
True, leading the country isn't just about winning over the Press Gallery. Or looking good in evening gowns. But in parliament and on camera, Gillard hides behind talking points, while Abbott goes on the offensive with hyperbole and almost always emerges the winner.
And in a week where her government has failed to take responsibility and assert reason (along with other sides of politics), when the country desperately needs it, it doesn't matter that Gillard shows amazing grace under pressure. Or satire in a speech. However impressive, we need more.
Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.
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