AS THE DUST SETTLES on Monday’s attempt by Liberal backbenchers to terminate Tony Abbott’s tenure as their leader and Prime Minister, worryingly little has been offered up publicly by Abbott as evidence of his bona fides in making good assurances he has learnt, listened, and would change. The required adjustments are clear, and the most urgent one is obvious: where Chief of Staff Peta Credlin is concerned, it is time for Abbott to say goodbye.
Some criticism may be made of the fact that just three days after the attempted coup against Prime Minister Tony Abbott failed, I am again demanding the removal of his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, although I would note in response that three days is two days longer than it took deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop to implicitly indicate a demand for precisely the same thing.
I am providing something for readers to listen to as they read today, as I am occasionally wont to do; and in case I get accused of jingoism I should point out that today’s audio track is not only perfectly suited to the central thesis of today’s article, but also probably my favourite song ever (and I am, in truth, loath to attach its dignified grace to anything to do with Credlin*).
It is no accident Bishop swung immediately into action once Monday’s goings-on had been finalised; this column has nominated the first and second most damaging influences on the Abbott government and its political fortunes and prospects as Credlin and Treasurer Joe Hockey respectively.
And in his pitch to Liberal MPs to be allowed to remain in the leadership, Abbott explicitly nominated a six-month period in which he, in return, would deliver all the change and reformation to redress everything that had so unsettled such a significant chunk of the parliamentary Liberal Party.
The clock is running; and three days in, Abbott has already cooked up almost 2% of that time. Viewed this way, it adds a potentially lethal new dimension to the notion of a week being a long time in politics.
Prior to the spill (and very clearly sensitive to the problem Credlin by then posed) it was seen to that she did not attend the National Press Club event Abbott addressed last week, nor the two-day meeting of federal Cabinet.
In the time since, Abbott has offered up a number of “crucial concessions” to dilute the influence of his divisive and inflammatory confidante: she will no longer vet most ministerial staff applications; will no longer pre-vet ministers’ Cabinet submissions; and she was noticeably absent from the advisers’ box in the House of Representatives during Question Time yesterday — a station at which she has long been an almost permanent fixture.
Liberal backbencher Don Randall sought and obtained an assurance from Abbott yesterday that ministerial staffers who leak against ministers or MPs would be committing a “sackable offence:” and whilst Ms Credlin was not mentioned by name, there was consensus among insiders and media correspondents in Canberra yesterday that the assurance had been demanded specifically with Credlin in mind.
In offering up these (and other) gestures, it seems that even Abbott knows, somewhere deep down, that Credlin must go; there is a limit to the number of “crucial concessions” he is able to make before her role is effectively gutted anyway.
And as Greg Sheridan — himself one of Abbott’s oldest and closest friends — writes in The Australian today, whilst she is a “good person,” Credlin has “failed utterly in her core task of managing relations within the government and between the government and the business community.”
The list of aggrieved persons and groups either demanding Credlin’s head openly or privately awaiting the sight of it rolling with satisfied anticipation is not inconsiderable, for Credlin has managed to galvanise a bitterly hostile coalition in opposition to herself that is unprecedented for a government staffer in Australia.
It includes large numbers of government ministers, including senior members of Cabinet; a significant proportion of the Coalition’s backbench MPs; influential figures from Australian industry who have been on the receiving end of insultingly patronising and dismissive treatment from the Prime Minister’s Office; long-suffering staff, both in that office and elsewhere in the government, who have been subjected to bullying and other treatment from the PMO designed to drive them into either submission or resignation; the countless number of serious professionals — collectively possessed of a vast array of expertise in their fields that would add lustre and depth to the government — who were arbitrarily spurned and dismissed from consideration under Credlin’s notorious “star chamber” and the veto panel anecdotally dominated by her whims, and prejudices, and preferences (in many cases with no apparent reason, and without even the courtesy of a telephone conversation); and not inconsiderably, a growing number of ordinary Coalition voters, whose initial inclination to give Credlin the benefit of the doubt has given way to great anger that a single lackey is not only controlling every aspect of the government they elected, but making a spectacular mess of it in so doing.
For Abbott to be fiddling around the edges of what is a malignant tumour at the heart of his government is simply unacceptable, especially after a political near-death experience just days ago, and deserves to be called out as such.
I have opined in this column previously that whilst Abbott’s famous sense of loyalty is admirable, and increasingly rare in politics, taken to its extreme this noble virtue can become blind; and in Ms Credlin’s case, he has allowed that sense of loyalty to prioritise her above his obligations to his government, to the Liberal Party, and to the Australian community it was elected to serve.
Almost every aspect of this government that has proven so troublesome — and every political problem it must now resolve as a consequence — can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the Prime Minister’s Office, for which in the end Peta Credlin as Chief of Staff is responsible.
And Tony Abbott, for better or for worse, is responsible for her.
It is why, having survived in his leadership by what most observers agree is a relatively precarious margin, taking three days to fail to render a satisfactory resolution of the Credlin issue is three days too long; neither Julie Bishop, nor myself, nor any of the other voices calling for her removal are at all raised in undue haste on the subject.
Credlin, if the success of the Prime Minister and the good of the government really does underpin her outlook, should look to her reputed judgement and acumen and decide her resignation is unavoidable, and deliver it forthwith.
And it is why, if it is not forthcoming by the end of the week, Abbott will have no alternative but to sack her: and sack her he must.
Failure to do so will be a big, black mark against him in the minds of his MPs who even now continue to weigh the wisdom of retaining his services. Abbott must not squib this critical test of the sincerity of his promises to his colleagues. Another such test — the future of Treasurer Joe Hockey — is already starting to be played out in newsprint and over the airwaves across Australia.
As regrettable as it may be to some, where Peta Credlin is concerned, it is now time for Abbott to say goodbye.
*I was hard pressed to think of an alternative that would be as well suited. This, however, would come extremely close, in dispensing with the problem that has emerged in the period since the federal election in September 2013. It is clear that the passions and tempers that have been inflamed over the Credlin issue run as strongly as that.