A last-stitch bid? Storm over photo of republican Australia PM Julia Gillard knitting kangaroo for royal baby

Blair's former spin-doctor John McTernan was sure it would do wonders for her popularity - but stunt has backfired

Sydney

It's an arresting image: the Prime Minister of Australia, impeccably coiffed and styled, knitting in an armchair, her dog Reuben at her feet. Julia Gillard's chief spin-doctor, Scottish-raised John McTernan, was sure it would do wonders for her popularity. Instead, it has whipped up a storm of criticism - the latest controversy to engulf Tony Blair's former strategist.

The photograph, posed for an interview spread in the country's biggest-selling magazine, Australian Women's Weekly, and reproduced in multiple newspapers, was deemed a public relations disaster. It was also ominously reminiscent of the Dickens character Madame Defarge and the "tricoteuses" who knitted by the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The notoriously abrasive Mr McTernan, who was hired by Ms Gillard in 2011, dreamed up the idea, which he called a "no-brainer" - presumably calculating it would appeal to female voters. But like the Prime Minister's recent speech warning that abortion rights would be scaled back and women's voices silenced if the conservative opposition won power this September, it has been condemned as a cynical stunt.

In the picture, Ms Gillard - whose poll ratings, along with those of her Labor Party, are rock bottom - is knitting a kangaroo for the royal baby: an odd pose, perhaps, for a staunch republican and female leader who electrified women worldwide last year with a parliamentary speech accusing the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, of misogyny and sexism.

Mr McTernan, who helped to re-elect Mr Blair in 2005, has become a much talked about figure in Australian political circles, with some comparing his bully-boy tactics and robust language to those of Malcolm Tucker, the spin-doctor in the BBC satire The Thick of It.

After a Sydney radio host, Ross Greenwood, claimed last year that government plans to raise tax on the pension contributions of high earners would not apply to politicians, Mr McTernan phoned him and delivered a 12-minute tirade during which he allegedly "dropped the f-bomb" at least 30 times.

Questioned, more recently, about the fact he holds a "457" temporary work visa - a visa the government claims is being widely abused and is trying to crack down on - Ms Gillard's communications director called it "hardly fucking relevant". He was furious earlier this month when a radio journalist, Ben Fordham, revealed that he had "offered to do a regular spot on your show next year if we lose the election".

The Prime Minister - pictured next to a bucket of knitting needles, with balls of wool fetchingly strewn around - does enjoy knitting, which she describes, along with watching the US TV drama series Game of Thrones, as her favourite hobby.

The photo, though, simply gave her opponents new ammunition, producing headlines such as "PM's last-stich bid to woo voters". An opposition frontbencher, Christopher Pyne, declared: "We know the Prime Minister is good at spinning a yarn and now we have the photographic proof of it."

As for the guillotine assocation: come September, it is Ms Gillard herself who is facing the chop.

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