While Gillard has it all over Howard when it comes to pure political cunning, the PM's problem is that tricks tend to catch up with you, eventually. And the bigger the trick, the more spectacular the fall. Depending on how the AWU scandal plays out, the PM may become our smaller version of Richard Nixon, the former US president who earned the name Tricky Dicky.
Just as with Nixon, Gillard risks being condemned in the court of public opinion more for a cover-up - if that is what transpires - than any original misdemeanor. And that is not so clever.
To be sure, all successful politicians project towering levels of self-confidence. Think of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Howard and, of course, Kevin Rudd. Then there's Gillard. Her soaring self-assurance has seen her, on more than one occasion, act in a way that has damaged her, be it as a lawyer or as a politician.
As a lawyer, Gillard's overconfidence meant she acted for her then union boyfriend when a more prudent lawyer would have handed the matter to another lawyer. She chose not to open a file when a more prudent lawyer would have done so. She chose not to inform her partners about her acting for Wilson and Blewett for the purposes of setting up what she calls a "slush fund". A more prudent lawyer would have been more cognisant of her fiduciary duties to her partners, not to mention her firm's client, the AWU.
As a lawyer, Gillard gave advice about incorporating an association that would use the AWU name even though she knew it was a slush fund for her two friends. A more prudent lawyer would have insisted that the use of the AWU name comply with AWU rules. As a lawyer, Gillard drafted up rules of the association that suggested to West Australian authorities its purpose was workplace safety reform, when she knew it was a "slush fund". A more prudent lawyer would have advised the client not to do so. As a lawyer, Gillard argued to the WA Corporate Affairs Commissioner that the AWU slush fund should not be construed as a trade union. A more prudent lawyer would not have done so. Even when Gillard, the lawyer, knew that the AWU was conducting a major investigation into the alleged fraud committed by Wilson using a Victorian slush fund, Gillard decided not to disclose what she knew about the WA slush fund. A more prudent lawyer, at the very least, would have consulted her partners, rather than wait for her partners to interrogate her. A more prudent lawyer would not have had to leave Slater & Gordon in the circumstances of Gillard's departure.
As a politician, she has revealed an even more bloated level of self-confidence perhaps because politics attracts and encourages narcissists and provides plenty of sycophants to stroke egos.
Gillard's arrogance saw her jumping from one faction to the next when it suited her political purposes. It meant she didn't waver from knifing a first-term sitting prime minister who had ousted the Howard government. It meant she didn't feel a need to explain Rudd's midnight removal to perplexed Australians. It meant undertaking a campaign of character assassination unprecedented in Australian political history against a disgruntled Rudd. Gillard's self-confidence also explains why voters have been treated with contempt. Broken promises about no carbon taxes under a Gillard government. Shallow policy pronouncements about an East Timor Solution and then a Malaysia Solution. Then a truly shameless backflip so Howard-era border policies so vehemently denounced as cruel by Labor were embraced as sensible policy.
Gillard's self-possession means she can accuse the Opposition Leader of being sexist and misogynist with the thinnest of evidence. It means making empty promises on the never-never to the preposterous point where, last week, the Gillard government introduced legislation for education reform that expressly said it did not contain one single legally enforceable law.
Gillard's overconfidence means that when the AWU scandal was raised in the media last year, she went in with guns blazing, demanding journalists be sacked. Then she re-loaded, deciding that more bluster would end the story. It didn't. And neither did Gillard's arrogance. The PM's ferocious, repeated denials that she has done nothing wrong, failing even to concede she made some very poor decisions as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon, means she has unwittingly upped the ante.
While the usual members of the media went ga-ga over Gillard's blistering performance last week, Gillard's perceived strongest card - her extraordinary self-belief - may well become her Achilles heel. Those interested in the substance of the scandal, rather than the PM's theatrics, witnessed a not so clever PM. Staring down journalists who dared to question her, Gillard refused to answer direct questions about the nature of her legal advice, about her contact with WA authorities and about the purpose of the slush fund. Asked about any contact her office may have had with Wilson who, after 17 years, fronted a TV camera to declare her innocence, she said "not to my knowledge".
Rather than shut down the scandal, Gillard's denials and Wilson's intervention invited former Slater & Gordon partner Nick Styant-Browne to release more sections from her exit interview. We now know, though not from Gillard, that she told fellow Slater & Gordon partner Peter Gordon in August 1995 that she drafted the rules for the slush fund (rules that did not reveal the true nature of the association) and she dealt with WA authorities who questioned the association's purpose. If the Nixon rule applies, it may be that any cover-up by Gillard as a politician will cause her more damage than her imprudent behaviour as a lawyer.