JULIA Gillard's government is embattled for many reasons, but at the core of the Prime Minister's problem is trust. This has been highlighted during her campaigning this week for the carbon tax.
A Brisbane woman in a shopping centre on Wednesday accused her of lying before and since the election; at a community forum that night another woman ran through her backflips and asked, ''How can anyone trust you with this record?'' It's a measure of how bad things are for Gillard - or, if you want a positive spin, how robust our democracy is - that people are so frank (even allowing for the fact some will be political activists) in confronting her about her lack of personal credibility.
The young woman at the forum identified various ''trust'' sins weighing Gillard down: flip-flopping on carbon; deposing Kevin Rudd; resorting to the Malaysia solution, compared with her attitudes in opposition. But why the issue has become so toxic for her (she is not the first PM to break their word) is more complicated. Her personal style and Labor's broader performance are reinforcing the distrust, which is being fanned by sections of the media.
The concept of political trust is itself not as simple as it might seem. Before the 2004 election, John Howard was still carrying the scars of his government's untruthfulness in the 2001 ''children overboard'' affair. Labor insisted he could not be trusted. What did Howard do? He declared, when he called the election, that it would be ''about trust''. His handsome win over Mark Latham was partly because, while Howard's word was a matter of debate on some issues, he was ''trusted'' to deliver on the fundamental economic ones.
Gillard has her individual and fundamental problem with trust but also the wider difficulty that people do not feel that broader ''trust'' that Howard could exploit. Partly, this comes from Labor's earlier blunders (pink batts and the like); also some voters believe the government a pawn of the Greens. But Labor's extraordinarily parlous situation (a 27 per cent primary vote) is still hard to explain fully, considering, for example, its sound performance on macro-economic management.
At the National Press Club yesterday, Gillard tried to address the public's distrust of her (and also the criticism she is wooden) by seeking to get voters to empathise with her.
In a very personal pitch, delivered emotionally, she said: ''Australians do want to know more about me and how I'll lead this government in coming years. They do want to know what kind of person I am. And look, I'm a decision-maker by nature and I have tended to let the decisions speak for themselves.
''It doesn't come easy to me to expose my feelings as I make those decisions. I was the shy girl [at school] … I've brought a sense of personal reserve to this, the most public of professions. And the rigours of politics have reinforced my innate style of holding a fair bit back to hang pretty tough. If that means people's image of me is one of steely determination, I understand why.''
On her broken promise, she couldn't unsay what she had said before the election about not bringing in a carbon tax. ''But when it became clear the only way to achieve action on climate change was to introduce a temporary carbon tax moving to an emissions trading scheme, the choice was this: I either stuck exactly to what I said just before the election, got no action on climate change, and did the wrong thing for the nation, or I found a way to get climate change action …''
And she knew that ''nothing hard ever gets easier by putting it off''.
This would be convincing enough except for one awkward point.
Pre-election, Gillard was promising to take time to build community consensus (remember the Citizens' Assembly that was to examine the issue over 12 months?) before moving to price carbon. That promise for a slower, measured approach - not just the one about ''no carbon tax'' - was broken.
The Greens say carbon pricing came onto the agenda quickly after the election because of their pressure. Their support was needed for Gillard to form government. She can't have things both ways. She either always intended to break the consensus-building promise (on the grounds important things shouldn't be put off), or the new circumstances of the hung Parliament made the difference not just on a carbon tax but on acting quickly or building consensus over a period.
Yesterday's performance was an attempt at a ''real Julia'' moment, as she tried to break through public antagonism towards her. But the high risk for Gillard in harking back to her ''shy girl'' persona is that this approach reinforces the cynicism about her, rather than dissipates it. That is the difficulty when voters have got into a mindset about a leader. Stratagems are seen as just that.
So what can Gillard do to regain the trust that people undoubtedly felt in her when she was deputy PM? Probably not much. Trust is likely gone forever. The best she can shoot for is respect - by delivering on her carbon price and the other parts of the ''reform'' agenda she talks about, so she can boast a solid record when she faces the people. She can bet on Tony Abbott coming under more scrutiny closer to the election. But she can only hope that voters will wobble when they come to decide how much they can trust him.