THE PRIME MINISTER’S Chief of Staff is in the headlines again this week — for all the wrong reasons — this time for allegedly vetoing the attendance of Foreign minister Julie Bishop at a climate change conference in Peru; Credlin has an important role to play in the operational efficiency of the government, but her place should be kept in perspective. Ministers and MPs are answerable to voters, not some jumped-up adviser.
As is ever the case with critics of the Liberal Party and of the Abbott government particularly, it never fails to surprise how malleable their righteous bleatings can be.
Shortly after the Coalition win at last year’s election — as Peta Credlin’s influence over staff appointments was beginning to ruffle feathers — the chorus from (mostly) the Left was one of indignation: how dare one unelected official wield so much power over an elected government? Now, however, as dissent and defiance toward the Prime Minister’s office percolates at a rolling boil, the same anti-Coalition voices (with a vested interest in the continuity of her shortcomings) profess outrage that a single, individual adviser could be so victimised and pilloried for simply doing her job.
Yes, there’s an outrage afoot all right, and to listen to the voices of the government’s enemies, the growing anger over Peta Credlin’s influence and the degree of control she wields over the government is the real evil in the equation.
But discipline in government and the efficient operation of a well-oiled machine are one thing; a central control edifice that arguably runs counter to the electoral and political interests of the government is something else again, and the ugly fracas that appears to have spilt over into the national press this week between Bishop and Credlin is symptomatic of the latter.
I have written in this column, many times, that the job Credlin did in welding the Coalition into a cohesive unit to fight the 2013 election was outstanding, and that the discipline in Coalition ranks that helped deliver government was achieved in no small measure as a result of her presence and her skill as a political fighter.
But since that point there has been ample reason for those committed to seeing the Abbott government succeed in office to grow uneasy, and whether true or not — or whether she and her acolytes like it or not — all roads lead back to the Prime Minister’s Office on her watch, and so does responsibility for a growing list of the government’s shortcomings and failings.
The problem — succinctly stated — is that Credlin has been free to either manage the government’s activities on every conceivable front, or to veto everything in sight, and whether political error derives from Credlin personally or the cabal of insiders she is cosseted in the Prime Ministerial bunker with, the effective end reality is unchanged.
On the latter count, the veto has been wielded with almost reckless abandon; the point at which I stopped defending Credlin to anyone who asked came when I learned that her central vetting panel for appointing advisers extended beyond the realm of ministerial offices, and instead reached right down into the individual electorate offices of Coalition MPs, with even the lowliest secretarial shitkicker roles subject to central approval or rejection.
Despite the insistence by anyone who was asked that MPs were free to hire whoever they liked — which they should have been — it was an exercise in micromanagement that bordered on the pathological.
We know, of course, that the PMO has had a high level of control over what ministers are permitted to say in press conferences; readers will recall the embarrassment of Immigration minister Scott Morrison flubbing the lines he had been given to regurgitate on one occasion early this year, only to be visibly berated by Credlin on the sidelines once the media conference had concluded. It is a single example but it is telling. And it wasn’t a good look.
Strategies, parliamentary tactics, policy initiatives, and the schedules of ministers are all managed on a short rein from the PMO, which seems happy for elected representatives to wear any opprobrium arising from the discharge of instructions — irrespective of the merit of those instructions — yet immune from any of the fallout, simply continuing to issue orders and exercise control from a fortified bunker that seems beyond any measure of accountability.
Yet if one chooses to wield the control and authority of the PMO as it is being wielded, and if the veto of just about everything in sight is exercised ruthlessly, relentlessly and remorselessly, then the inevitable fallout and consequences must also be accepted as part of the remit, not shuffled down the line or blame transferred onto those actually elected to govern.
And the tendency to extreme micromanagement (which is never the best approach to the administration of anything involving large numbers of people) exhibited by the PMO appears to be reaping the results that micromanagement regimes in business almost invariably yield: the spiralling loss of control, compliance and cohesion that comes from the sheer resentment of people being treated like idiots — in this case, the government’s own MPs.
The latest alleged spat that has found its way into the pages of the press between Credlin and Foreign minister Julie Bishop has been met, predictably and commendably enough and from both sides, with standard rote denials and the insistence that these two forceful and highly capable women share a robustly functional professional relationship.
I have my doubts, but even accounting for media sensationalism and the penchant for the odd mischievous journalist or three to fly a kite, the consistency of this type of material spilling into the public domain simply wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t more than an atom of truth to it.
The episode over the veto of Bishop’s attendance at a conference in Peru — later overturned by Cabinet approval, which in turn was met with the PMO insisting Trade minister Andrew Robb be sent as a “chaperone,” which is a novel euphemism for keeping an eye on her if ever there was one — and the subsequent growing clamour from disgruntled MPs who find themselves shut off from the Prime Minister in every way except the receipt of orders from his office highlights how serious the problem (and the disconnect) between the Prime Minister’s Office and the actual government has grown.
In my view, the consequences are writ large: a government flailing in the polls, with a ministry providing succour to a number of no-hopers, no-shows and non-performers, acting on a political strategy apparently designed to return the Coalition to opposition, and as whatever dubious strategy the Coalition is following flounders.
If anyone inside the little unelected cabal running the government disagrees with that assessment, then they should get out more, frankly. It doesn’t take a lot of time talking to people disconnected with politics in a structural sense to realise that — rightly or wrongly — the Abbott government is not travelling well, and is unlikely to win an election any time soon unless a fundamental and profound shift occurs in the strategies it is currently welded to.
Nobody can have it both ways; Credlin might be a formidable operator and yes, she can point to significant political accomplishments that entitle her to a degree of the credit for getting Tony Abbott elected in the first place.
But what has transpired in the 15 months since is also a chronology she owns and must wear, for whether Credlin personally — or the overall structure that is the PMO, which in turn is tantamount to the same thing — has left this government, near the midway point of its first term in office, in a precarious political position.
There are things beyond any government’s control, and the obstruction of the Senate and the reprehensible conduct of Labor “leader” Bill Shorten in his approach to his role as alternative Prime Minister are two cases in point. But on any objective analysis, those things well within the capacity of the Coalition to influence and control are, to put it bluntly, being mishandled far too often, and more often than not.
The bickering between the parliamentary wing of the government and the PMO has gone on too long; it is never a good look for these matters to be laid out before the public. The fact they are reflects in this case the justified frustration of both Coalition MPs and of others, beyond the parliamentary realm but firmly committed to the success of the government, and all of whom can see the growing stain being left on it: and the likely electoral consequences of the “simply stand firm” approach that is being taken too often, and almost entirely in relation to the wrong things to be defending in the first place.
If Ms Credlin wanted to do the government a real favour, she would marshal her minions to see a ministerial reshuffle occurs in the new year, along with a critical and wholesale stocktake of who in the adviser pool is performing and who, really, is not: loyalty and pride are admirable attributes, but not when their repercussions might include the loss of government at an election after a single term.
That, in short, is where the Abbott government now stands.
It is why, in the latest of a litany of embarrassing confrontations between Ms Credlin (or her hand-picked lieutenants) and other forces within the government, Bishop must prevail, and be seen to prevail: in the actual sense, among government MPs and elsewhere internally, and in the eyes of the public.
Ultimately, the government, its MPs and its ministers are answerable to voters, not to some jumped-up unelected adviser whose influence is arguably now doing far more damage than good: and it would be wise, even if for no better reason than self-preservation, for the likes of Ms Credlin and those in charge of the mechanics of what has been a poorly operated government, to take stock — and to respond accordingly, whilst the time and opportunity to do so still exist.