Is Gillard's spin doctor getting too much credit?

John McTernan's talents as a spin supremo have served Julia Gillard well, but the explosion of genuine emotion the prime minister showed late last year is a trump card even he couldn't have planned for.

There was something of a buzz at the Prime Minister's Christmas drinks at the Lodge last year, with several colleagues whispering excitedly as the person they'd come to see walked past – no, not the PM, but her communications director John McTernan.

Why all the excitement? Because McTernan, drafted in from the UK just over a year ago, is the man known for steering British PM Tony Blair through the difficult years of 2005 to 2007 as director of political operations.

During that period, McTernan proved he was expert in navigating mine-fields – from late 2006, Blair's popularity plummeted following allegations he mislead parliament over the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So who better to help Julia Gillard survive Tony Abbott's withering attacks on the carbon tax?

At the time of McTernan's appointment in September 2011, Labor's primary vote had fallen from 38 per cent at the election, to just 26 per cent. Flying a big-shot in from abroad must have seemed like the obvious answer.

And has it worked? A Newspoll survey on December 11 showed Labor's primary vote at 32 per cent, down from 36 per cent during the spring session of parliament. Julia Gillard was well ahead of Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister, at 43 per cent to 34 per cent.

Observers outside the Labor party will assume the steady climb back to a primary vote in the 30s had a lot to do with McTernan. That's a pretty safe bet – he's credited with devising the strategy to focus on Abbott's 'negativity' and for setting the stage for the repeated attacks on Abbott's 'misogyny' and 'problem with women'.

But then things are never quite that simple. History is likely to record another factor in the Labor recovery that not even spin supremo McTernan could have forseen – an explosion of real emotion from Julia Gillard.

Few commentators have given due weight to the bereavement Gillard suffered when her father, John Gillard, died during her trip to the APEC forum in Russia in September. As many readers will know first-hand, that kind of loss often knocks a person off their feet for months, sometimes years.

But it was only days after Gillard's sudden loss that Alan Jones made the remarks for which he shortly afterwards apologised – that Gillard's father had "died of shame".

That remark, quite rightly, sent the nation into a frenzy of moral outrage – though Labor's too-vigorous response gave far too much oxygen to Jones, and has clearly boosted his ratings and political power as a result. Had Labor shown more restraint, the opprobrium could all have come from the public, and Jones' star would have shone a little less brightly.

When Abbott foolishly repeated the 'died of shame' phrase in parliament a week or so later, Gillard's ferocious reply, though no doubt rehearsed to an extent, flowed straight from the heart. Real Julia and real emotion that no spin doctor could ever achieve through coaching. It was a hell of a lot better than the rather tepid 'Real Julia' of the 2010 election campaign.

And even if viewers don't understand all the issues of the day, they know genuine emotion when they see it. The video clip of what we now call the 'misogyny speech' was viewed countless millions of times around the globe.

The New Yorker wrote at the time: "... supporters of President Obama, watching Gillard cut through the disingenuousness and feigned moral outrage of her opponent to call him out for his own personal prejudice, hypocrisy, and aversion to facts, might be wishing their man would take a lesson from Australia".

It was what McTernan wanted, but not the kind of outcome he could personally arrange. Gillard's personal grief provided a turning point for her government that, win or lose in 2013, gave Australia a insight into the 'real' PM that may not be repeated for decades, if ever.

When Gillard took the prime ministership in June 2010, McTernan wrote in the UK's Guardian newspaper: "Women are probably the key swing group in the forthcoming [2010] election."

Yes, women were an important part of Labor's scraping home in 2010. But since that time, through a combination of shrewd strategy and events way beyond his control, McTernan has swung many more women behind Gillard. A day may be a long time in politics, but for Tony Abbott, Gillard's 15 minute speech probably felt much longer.

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