TODAY’S ARTICLE deals with an old-fashioned monster story, or would do if the storyline were found in a fiction book rather than at the epicentre of federal government; it deals — once again — with the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, and evidence that not only has the behaviour of the PMO that contributed to the recent Liberal leadership spill attempt continued despite Credlin’s assumption of a low public profile, but intensified.
Time permitting, I will be back this evening to talk about an economic and infrastructure policy issue that is near to my heart, but something has appeared in the press this morning that I cannot allow to pass without comment in light of the events of the past six weeks and the villain who dwells at their epicentre.
It centres — once again — on the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, and the influence she apparently continues to unabatedly wield over the Abbott government; since a week or two after the abortive leadership spill Credlin has taken to lying low, out of the public eyeline, and so much so that I have heard some folk who follow matters political openly ponder what all the fuss over Credlin was about in the first place.
But a leopard does not change its spots, and a monster — even one wounded, chastened, or humiliated in momentary defeat — does not retreat to its lair to ruminate over personal transformations or sea changes; rather, it sits in the dark, regaining and consolidating its strength and planning its next attack, which is what makes the matter at hand today so interesting — and so ominous.
Former senior Howard government staffer Niki Savva (who, of all people, should know) relates an episode in her weekly column in The Australian today in which a text message was sent by Credlin was sent to Senate President Stephen Parry last week, seeking to verify in what can only be described as inquisitorial terms whether reports that Parry had criticised her at a state executive meeting were true.
It also alluded to “queries” from journalists to the effect that there were too many Tasmanians in leadership positions within the Abbott government, and as Savva tells the story, the message was received by Parry — a Taswegian — and those around him as a thinly veiled but explicit threat despite the “friendly” terms it was couched in.
The imputation is quite clear: if it was true that Parry had dared to criticise Credlin in an internal organisational forum within the Liberal Party, the option to remove him from his position was one he should be aware had occurred to those who might be in a position to act upon it.
And this, whilst at first glance seemingly removed from the world of budgets and Senate hostility and press conferences, is something that ought to concern anyone with an interest in appropriate and rigorous notions of governance, well away from Canberra and with nothing to do with the Liberal Party at all except an inclination to vote for it.
This column has been (and continues to be) a trenchant critic of Peta Credlin, and whilst I am comfortable for the time being that Tony Abbott continues as Prime Minister, that position remains very much predicated on Credlin’s departure from both the PMO and any sinecure of influence or management over the government altogether.
We have discussed snapshots of the case against Credlin at length over the past few months, and readers who wish to avail themselves of a refresher should access the “Peta Credlin” tag in the tag cloud to the right of this article for a selection of others that detail these: I’m not going back today over ground that has been well covered already.
But Savva’s piece in The Australian this morning shows that whilst Credlin may lately have removed herself from public view, her presence — and its counter-intuitive and politically destructive influence — remains very much alive.
Liberal Party state executive meetings (and other internal forums within the party) provide the opportunity for rank-and-file members of the party (or in this case, their representatives on the body that governs its state division) to air their opinions on and debate the directions and actions of the party in government, away from public scrutiny or the glare of the press, and free — in theory at least — of the threat of reprisals, victimisation, or punitive action over dissenting views.
In short, they are the kind of forums that Liberal voters who are not members of the party ought to be thankful exist as a potential check on the government operated at a parliamentary level by the party’s elected MPs.
I obviously don’t live in Tasmania and here in Victoria, I have nothing to do at this stage with the party’s state executive. However, without disclosing any details, I can attest to the fact that the goings-on in Canberra have been the subject of robust and vociferous debate in other member forums within the party that I have been to in Melbourne of recent times, and to say that ordinary party members are in any way happy or satisfied with the Abbott government would be delusional, to say the least.
And I don’t know whether or not Senator Parry has taken a pot shot at Credlin within the Tasmanian state executive as the text message cited in Savva’s column suggests.
But if the SMS message from Credlin was indeed sent to Parry — and there is no reason to believe it wasn’t, so well-connected and scrupulous with her fact checking as Savva is — then it points to Credlin not merely continue to wield the inappropriate and counter-productive control over the government that has already proven so politically destructive, but has now moved to seek out key people within the membership forums of the party of itself to stifle the very dissent and debate those forums exist for in the first place.
And it goes without saying that a bureaucrat employed within the executive arm of government pursuing some kind of witch hunt over what takes place in the membership forums of a political party is an indefensible conflict of interest so at odds with the nature of his or her role as to render their tenure in such a position untenable.
Especially if that bureaucrat just happens to be the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.
Saliently, Savva recounts today the clear message conveyed to Abbott prior to the vote by the seconder of the spill motion against him, WA MP Don Randall, that were he to fail to sack Credlin, the party’s MPs would have no choice but to remove Abbott from the leadership in order to ensure her dismissal themselves: a formulation I believe was and is not only valid, but still very much a necessary course where Credlin’s continuing tenure is concerned.
Make no mistake, there is an uprising within the ranks of the Liberal Party’s membership base across the country at present over the inept, hamfisted manner in which the party’s handling of government at state and federal levels has been conducted; in the face of vested interests fighting to keep their positions of prestige and influence — to say nothing of their snouts in the trough — great change seems set to be imposed upon the party this year, as its fed-up members seek redress over what can only be seen as squandered opportunities in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, perhaps New South Wales, and certainly at the federal level.
It is not the place of a lackey like Credlin to be interfering in the exercise by party members of their right to debate the course of the party, and who seek to correct it where their perception is that the ship has foundered on the rocks through the navigational errors of its captain and his mates.
And it is certainly not her place or her right to seek to stifle those conversations — apparently under threat of duress — to engineer them out of existence.
Painful as it is for some in the party to accept it, I have been consistently blunt about the fact that unless the cancerous growth at the epicentre of the Abbott government is removed, and removed quickly, then the Liberal Party federally is on a certain course for a return to opposition: not something any of us want, and certainly not something in the national interest.
One look at the alleged alternative is enough to prove that.
But the grubby little episode that Niki Savva writes of today shows that whilst the monster may have been repelled in the crossfire last month, it has by no means been destroyed.
In fact, it continues to hide in the abyss, flexing its muscles and recalibrating its attack plans, and maintaining an attack stance toward enemies real, imagined, perceived, or created by the invitation of its own actions.
The horror show of Peta Credlin’s “management” of the Abbott government rolls on, it seems, unabated and unhindered.
Like any monster story, this one will only end happily if the beast is slain — for the monster at the bottom of the abyss in this case will only be overcome by its utter destruction: as the hydra with a head lopped off grows two others in its place, it seems removing Credlin from her prominently visible posture has served only to embolden her, and to invite her activities to continue unretarded.
Attempts — insinuated, actual, implied or threatened — to interfere in the membership forums of the Liberal Party itself to stifle dissent and consolidate her position cannot and must not be tolerated, and if this incident is representative of how Credlin sees fit to discharge her duties then it is imperative she be removed forthwith.
Yet again, if Abbott will not fire her, then his own position will — soon enough — again be called into question.
For a government that pays so much attention to opinion polls, the first precondition for another spill attempt was satisfied on Monday.
Any more outbursts of the kind Savva covers off on today will only fuel the fire, and stiffen the resolve of Liberal MPs to get rid of Abbott so Credlin is removed once and for all.
And if that is what it takes to remove her, then so be it.