FRUSTRATION AND FURY have erupted in the Coalition this week; the latest twist — a suggestion by Tony Abbott that criticising his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, is “sexist” — is not just wrong, but offensively so. The government is ending 2014 in an almost cataclysmic political position, and Credlin and her staff bear more than a little blame. Intervening as he has, Abbott has legitimised questions over his judgement and his tenure as Prime Minister.
I’m not going to labour the point today, for we have already talked about the growing problem of the Prime Minister’s Office under Peta Credlin’s leadership twice this week — here and here — and there is an increasing volume of content appearing in the mainstream press on the same subject, from highly reputable writers whose research and sources are almost invariably impeccable, and who take no interest whatsoever in flying kites and mischief-making: such as respected veteran journalist Laurie Oakes in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph today, and Peter van Onselen over at The Australian.
But the suggestion from Tony Abbott that the criticism being levelled at his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, derives from the fact that she is a woman is incorrect, offensive, and represents a misguided overreach of loyalty that could ultimately turn speculation onto his own position as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister.
As Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Credlin heads up a team at the very heart of the Abbott government; this team — notoriously — exercises the tightest and most centrally determined control regime over any federal government that has sat in Canberra to date, and whilst every own goal kicked by the PMO may not derive from Credlin directly, as the figurehead in charge of this hand-picked outfit, responsibility for its activities (and its glaring mistakes) rests with her.
It’s not a job in which the “all care and no responsibility” outlook can be applied.
Yet that — based on the (few) defences made of Ms Credlin publicly — seems to be precisely the view her detractors are apparently meant to adopt: until yesterday this was supposedly because Credlin’s influence in opposition “got” the Liberal Party into government.
Now, it seems — according to Abbott — we are meant to believe that criticising Credlin is “sexist,” and Abbott, of all people, ought to know better than to throw gender slurs into the political mix when there is little or no justification to do so.
Certainly, Credlin (who, despite claims of eschewing media attention, has the highest public profile of anyone in her role to date) has noted that at official events abroad and in meeting officials and dignitaries from other governments she has at times struggled to be taken seriously, and been confronted with the view that the Prime Minister’s CoS is a “Peter Credlin” on more than one occasion.
I don’t dispute that incidents such as this occur, and I don’t suggest for a moment that they are anything other than demeaning to her as a woman and inappropriate (assuming, that is, that there isn’t a simple misunderstanding in the first place that “Peta” is a lady). But holding them up as evidence that criticism of her is sexist simply doesn’t cut it.
Rather, to do so misses the point: the PMO (and with Credlin in charge of it) has arguably bungled the job of efficiently running a politically productive and effective government. It is well known, both publicly and behind the scenes, that ultimate authority in the PMO rests with Credlin, which means the buck stops with her too.
The PMO controls the government’s parliamentary strategy.
The PMO controls the government’s press and media relations strategy.
The PMO controls the government’s parliamentary policy agenda, including (but in no way limited to) the disastrous, ill-conceived, poorly marketed and politically incendiary budget delivered by Joe Hockey as Treasurer in May.
The PMO controls who has access to the Prime Minister, on what terms, and even what is permissible to discuss when meetings between the Prime Minister and his MPs are convened.
The PMO controls the process of virtually every internal function of government, from the recruitment of personnel to the approval of material for Cabinet consideration, through to the travel arrangements of MPs and (as we now know) even the ability of ministers to attend international functions that are relevant to their portfolios.
In short, the tendrils of the PMO reach into every conceivable function and orifice of the process of governance, and it is arguable — given the dreadful standing of the Abbott government in all of the reputable opinion polls and the apparent low regard in which it is held by the voting public — that it has failed on every one of these measures.
It matters not whether Credlin has a penis or a vagina: she is the official responsible for all of these things, and on her watch all have been botched.
And micromanagement regimes wrought in control freakery, paranoia, excessive secrecy and the near-complete denial of the state of the real world beyond the walls of the citadel in which they operate are hardly a female preserve, or even gender-specific at all. One look in the rear-view mirror at Kevin Rudd proves this quite neatly.
Yet by the same token, women in roles like the one Credlin occupies are not immune to criticism simply because they are female, and nor should they be.
I don’t really care whether Credlin (or anyone else in charge of the PMO) wears a skirt, pants, or whether they are man or woman — the only criteria for success is whether or not they do the job properly and again, the Abbott government is travelling so badly that it is difficult to conclude that Ms Credlin is doing so.
Especially when the PMO has a very large controlling hand in virtually everything the government does.
Viewed through this paradigm, Abbott’s claim that Credlin “would not face the same criticism if she were a man” is disingenuous, distasteful in the extreme, and through a misguided overreach of loyalty introduces the same divisive red herring into the defence of his staffer that was maliciously — and wrongly — deployed against him by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her so-called handbag hit squad.
At the very least, Abbott should know better.
There are good and valid reasons for the frustration and fury that is beginning to spill over into the public domain about the way his government is being run; I would wager very few (if any) of Abbott’s ministers contemplate the prospect of returning to opposition after a single term in office with any enthusiasm.
The cynical use of gender politics is no defence to bad performance, poor judgement, or highly adverse political outcomes: it wasn’t when Gillard tried it on and it certainly isn’t now.
Apparently Credlin is unhappy that the fact her husband, Brian Loughnane, is federal director of the Liberal Party is “constantly referenced” by the media.
But as perhaps the most politically powerful pairing in Australia at present — with one in charge of the organisational wing of the governing party and the other in charge of the operation of that government — questions based on the appropriateness or otherwise of so much influence being concentrated in one couple are justified.
And aside from enraging just about every Coalition voter in Australia who was affronted by Gillard and her “misogyny” misadventure (deployed, it must be remembered, to try to shore up as Speaker a man who’d been caught sending absolutely disgusting filthy text messages about female genitalia), Abbott has brought the whole stink closer to himself, and the issues of his judgement and his loyalty to Credlin raise for the first time the issue of his own political mortality.
In apparently “owning” what the PMO does in an attempt to bolster Credlin’s defence, Abbott risks tarring himself with the political calamity the PMO appears to be crafting: maybe his office “does what (he) asks it to do” as he says.
But his office is steering the government onto the rocks of electoral oblivion, and if Abbott can’t or won’t see that, then the unthinkable — a change in the federal leadership of the Liberal Party — might be the only way to get the PMO operating in the party’s best political interests rather than slowly obliterating its stocks.
I have said in this column before that Credlin remains the best-placed to effect change, both in the PMO and in the government more widely, and she is; and irrespective of her failings (or the failings of the PMO under her stewardship) she remains a capable operator with the ability to significantly advance the government’s agenda.
But clearly there is work to do, and if the government were ahead (or even merely thereabouts) in the polls, winning the day at least as often as it loses, and making clear progress toward fulfilling the brief it was elected upon, then nobody would be criticising Credlin at all.
A lecturer in government at the University of Queensland once told me — in direct reference to active politics — that if you want to enjoy the status, you have to eat the shit, and this blunt edict on the lot of MPs and those surrounding them (if inelegantly expressed) is particularly relevant in this case.
Everyone should forget about the gender barbs, or flinging accusations of sexism around, and confront the very real problems this government faces.
The government ends the year (and virtually the first half of its first term) in almost cataclysmic political shape, and whilst recovery is always possible, it will take a lot of hard work — and a much more shrewd approach to the mechanics of governance than has, to date, been shown.
Loyalty is admirable, but too much of it in the wrong circumstances is both misguided and self-destructive: and whilst Abbott’s famed loyalty to those around him is a significant personal strength, doubling down in this regard — and accusing anyone who wants to call Credlin out for the potentially disastrous consequences of the activities of the office she runs of rank sexism — could ultimately take Abbott down as well if he persists in such a ridiculous, and overtly provocative, defence of her that has no justification when the hard outcomes of the PMO’s best efforts are considered.
The irony — if Abbott were to fall under the proverbial bus — that his likeliest replacement would be a woman should be lost on no-one, and nor should the fact that the first person to be thrown out in any “house clean” by a new Prime Minister would probably be Credlin, and especially if Abbott’s replacement is in fact Julie Bishop.
No, Prime Minister, criticising Peta Credlin is not “sexist.”
Persisting with the suggestion that it is could see Abbott with a lot more time on his hands, and a lot sooner than anyone imagined or thought possible.
Either way, none of this helps the government or the country. Australia is crying out for real leadership.
Right now, the government cannot claim to be delivering anything of the sort: and for that, Credlin and the operation she runs are culpable.