Top effort but it's not likely to work

Julia Gillard, furious and frustrated, tried to clear the air of dark clouds of swirling innuendo yesterday.

She confronted the accusations and implications and named her enemies and answered all reporters' questions.

She gave a good account of her actions as a lawyer 17 years ago and was rewarded by a media corps unable to sustain any serious allegation and exhausted of questions.

Despite all that, it's most unlikely to have the desired effect of clearing the air. But you can see why she decided to try.

This was supposed to be her moment. The carbon tax is in, and the sky didn't fall. In the absence of the Abbott Armageddon, Gillard expected to have a moment of blue sky, a vital chance to recover from the carbon curse.

But for six days, her political sky has been darkened by the return of the scandal of her former boyfriend, Bruce Wilson.

For days after The Australian newspaper revived the story on its front page, Gillard declined to discuss the matter, daring journalists to tell her exactly what they were accusing her of. It was an invitation to commit defamation, and none took up the offer. Besides, the exact accusation was unclear.

The opposition daily repeated that Gillard had questions to answer, yet was unable to formulate one. Even in Parliament, where the opposition needn't fear the laws of defamation, it did not put a question to her.

The persistence of The Australian, aided by its News Ltd stablemates, persuaded some other media to give it some second-tier coverage. But while it was not going away, it didn't seem to be going anywhere, either.

Yesterday Gillard decided it was time to confront the issue. Why? Because The Australian had overstepped the mark on one detail and was forced to publish an online correction. The Prime Minister struck. She would answer all reporters' questions, but only on this one occasion. It was an effort to kill the issue.

So why won't it work? For three reasons. First, she has now elevated it by her own treatment. She has made it a legitimate issue for prime ministerial cross-examination.

Second, because you cannot clear the air when the skies are swarming with enemy attack forces.

There is a small industry of feverish Gillard haters who inhabit the nether realm of the internet, people she called misogynists and nutjobs. And there is The Australian, dedicated to the destruction of the Labor government. But there are also her enemies in caucus, who are aiding and encouraging the campaign.

And third is that a political scandal, once launched, is an unguided missile that can take unexpected turns.

If Gillard wants clear air and blue skies, she'll need to go to the beach on a sunny day because she will not find them in Parliament.

Peter Hartcher is The Sydney Morning Herald's political and international editor

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