View from The Hill

Gillard announces inquiry after botched handling of Egyptian convicted of terrorism offences

Spinning facts and fiction – Malcolm Tucker and John McTernan. Flickr/Petezin

Doug Cameron, the senator with the trademark Scottish accent, has sent a blunt message to Julia Gillard. He told her to stop listening to her communications adviser, John McTernan, whose brogue is just a little less broad than Cameron’s.

Cameron didn’t put it quite so explicitly. Condemning “these spin merchants that keep telling her what she should do”, he said: “She should do what I do – don’t read the nonsense every morning to tell you what your spin line is”.

While not mentioning McTernan by name, it’s well known that the two Scots aren’t soul mates.

Ever since he arrived in Gillard’s office, McTernan has been a controversial figure in Labor circles. Critics claim he doesn’t understand that Aussie politics isn’t like the British scene, where he worked in the Blair office.

On the other hand, McTernan might have become the lightning rod - the PM’s problems are much deeper than the advice from any individual.

(For those interested, McTernan bears a strong resemblance to Malcolm Tucker, played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, in the British political satire The Thick of It, though McTernan’s language is not usually so colourful and the loose model for Tucker was another Blair man, Alastair Campbell).

There is advice a-plenty for the embattled Gillard. Whatever McTernan might be telling her, Cameron said she should “be herself”, while one of her strong supportersm, Laurie Ferguson, spent Tuesday urging her to get on the front foot in the asylum seeker debate.

All sound enough - but not so easy to do.

Being “herself” brings back those memories of her flick to the “real Julia” in the election campaign. Who the “real Julia” was became an issue in itself.

Also, the tougher things get, the more difficult it is for a leader to be themselves. In her salad days, when she was deputy PM, Gillard was a very effective politician, a strong parliamentary performer and a sound minister (despite some problems with the massive education stimulus spending). People warmed to her.

But the top job has dragged her down - or she hasn’t been up to it - and no amount of effort can restore that earlier political sparkle.

As for selling the asylum seeker policy better: there are two problems. Firstly, it is very hard for Gillard to get voters to listen, especially on this issue.

They have decided the government has failed – more than 11,000 people have arrived on boats so far this year.

It is true that Tony Abbott’s policy of turning boats back is problematic. It is opposed by Indonesia, with confusion added this week by foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop’s comments to Guardian Australia about that country’s attitudes. The opposition itself is realising the difficulties it would have in power and is dampening expectations of how quickly it could get the situation under control.

But if people aren’t willing to open their ears, Gillard can’t easily discredit Abbott’s policy. Especially given that the government hasn’t any answers itself.

The government dwells on the opposition’s continued refusal to accept some of the Houston report, specifically the revival of the Malaysia people swap.

But while that’s fair criticism, even if the swap – which was to involve only 800 asylum seekers going to Malaysia – now occurred, it would be unlikely to stop the flow.

Labor has adopted offshore processing, but it has not been a deterrent. Indeed, the government has been forced to put increasing numbers of asylum seekers into the community, as the system groans under big numbers and slow processing.

Gillard does indeed need better talking points on asylum policy. But they can’t be delivered to her by the spin merchants. She requires a policy prescription guaranteed to bring success, and these days - the Houston panel and the opposition’s claims notwithstanding - nobody can be sure what that would be.

Indeed, instead of moving onto the front foot in the boats debate after Ferguson’s exhortation, Gillard finds herself herself pushed further onto the back foot, trying to fend off the opposition’s allegations of a breach of national security.

This relates to an Egyptian jihadist, a member of a terrorist organisation convicted in that country of pre-meditated murder and terrorist-related offences, who was put in a low security detention facility in the Adelaide Hills mid last year. He stayed there until April, despite the authorities knowing of his background months before - ASIO told the Immigration department on August 30.

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor, who was not briefed on the matter until April, had said his predecessor Chris Bowen was also not briefed. Now he has had to admit the department sent material about the man to Bowen’s office in late September. Bowen has told people he did not see the brief.

Gillard accused the opposition of trying to whip up fear, pointing out that the man has always been in detention. Attempting to deal with this bushfire, however, she announced the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security would examine agencies’ management of “persons seeking asylum who present complex security issues”, and particularly this case. The government said later the inquiry could look at the Immigration department’s performance.

Amid these developments, another wild political day saw Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd, who despise each other, share a common “talking point”. Rudd declared it was time Labor MPs “just pulled their heads in”. Swan said it was about time a few people “put a sock in it”.

Over in Britain Malcolm Tucker has done his dash. Capaldi is due next year to play French cleric Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. McTernan’s 2014 plans are not known.