FOR ONCE we’ll be nice about Prime Ministerial Chief of Staff Peta Credlin; with the government at a crossroads and Tony Abbott himself perhaps dependent for survival on a solid result at the Canning by-election, rather than (justifiably) slating Credlin, today we are going to acknowledge her supposed strengths — and pray flexibility might be added to them. Nobody knows everything: especially Credlin and the coterie she is surrounded by.
It really doesn’t matter how smart, insightful, or how strategically and tactically astute you are — or think you are, or are told you are — when the whole enterprise for which you have been given oversight is going to hell in a handbasket; to be brutally Darwinian about it, faced with oblivion, you either change or die.
It is just such a position in which the federal government (and specifically, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin) finds itself, one week out from what some believe is a make-or-break electoral test at a by-election in the outer Perth seat of Canning.
Not for the first time, what should have been a good week for the Coalition has ended on a sour, divisive note, with yet more rumours of a leadership challenge from Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, and an increasing number of gutlessly anonymous Liberal MPs briefing journalists that Abbott is “finished” irrespective of the Canning result — just the thing to encourage voters in that electorate to deliver a ringing endorsement at a mid-term field trip to the ballot box whose outcome will not affect the overall composition of Parliament.
In other words, the electors in Canning have a free hit in hand next Saturday: with so much apparently riding on the result, the behaviour of the Coalition camp this week is inexplicable. And unforgivable.
I read an excellent article earlier today in The Australian from Peter van Onselen, who argues — correctly — that Abbott must listen to conservative critics of his government; van Onselen’s central thesis applies equally to Credlin, for anyone who seriously thinks Tony Abbott singlehandedly runs his own government is delusionally naive.
That responsibility, ultimately, is carried by Credlin: and if one side of that partnership is permanently misfiring, then the closer the implosion point comes the greater the risk it will destroy not just both of them, but the government with it.
For years now, anyone who follows politics has been told by Abbott, ad infinitum, that Credlin is the “smartest and fiercest political warrior he has ever known,” and perhaps, in fact, she is; nobody seriously doubts the intellect of someone who comes from a background in law and who has held a swathe of high-profile roles both in and out of politics for the better part of 20 years.
But something is clearly not working; after 18 consecutive months of opinion polling showing, on average, a 6.5% two-party swing against the Coalition at an election — enough, if uniform, to gift an additional 29 seats to the ALP and with them, government in a cakewalk — and with Credlin nominally in charge of the entire management effort of the Coalition’s political fortunes, the buck stops with her.
Let me say that again: the buck stops with Peta Credlin, as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister.
This is a job to which she was appointed; she was demonstrably qualified for the post, at the time of the appointment, by her track record as a government staffer in a range of roles over a 15-year period; she accepted the responsibility that goes with the post when she accepted the appointment; and whilst it’s certainly true that Abbott is responsible for her as her employer, Credlin’s role dictates that she is the responsible official if politically acceptable outcomes are not being delivered by the government as a whole.
So for today at least, we will accept that Credlin is, all other things being equal, an ideal candidate to head the Prime Minister’s Office.
In turn, she is also responsible for the entire coterie of advisors who discharge what all observers know is a centrally planned political strategy that emanates from the PMO.
She has had oversight over their recruitment, famously vetoing scores — perhaps hundreds — of names; some reputedly for petty reasons, and some on the dubious grounds that she didn’t know them: whichever way you cut it the government’s advisory pool is, if not entirely hand-picked, certainly personally shaped by the direct input of Credlin.
My understanding, from extremely reliable sources, is that the emphasis in selecting these people was less on capability and more on obedience, and certainly, anyone hiring staff wants to ensure the people they pick do what they are told.
But this wasn’t the case when the Abbott government was being staffed; it is widely known in Liberal Party circles that Credlin wanted people who were personally compliant, rather than simply people who would do what they were told in the course of the day’s business — and even without the evidence of a government trailing in the polls and seemingly destined for an electoral belting, this approach to “people and culture” as it has become quaintly known in business was easily foreseeable as a recipe for catastrophe.
It isn’t that any of them are bad people, per se; rather, the Abbott government is being run, broadly, by the wrong people in the wrong roles, and the frightening thing is that by and large, the impenetrable, incandescent disaster that has been made of two years in office is quite probably (and literally) the very best the people stacked into those roles are capable of.
Just like the internal ructions that culminated in an abortive but desperate putsch against Abbott in February, it should have surprised nobody in the Credlin cabal that others — outside Parliament and/or excluded from any involvement in or influence over the workings of the government for one malicious reason or another — would find their voices, and in many cases much more quickly than the MPs who moved on Abbott at the beginning of the year and who widely nominated Credlin as their number one target.
In this context, the van Onselen article completely nails the problem the government faces.
Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power is that the Abbott government boasts a shining record of achievement that has seen it do all sorts of good things for Australia. It hasn’t.
Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power persists with the fantasy that those charged with the stewardship of the government’s fortunes — headed by Credlin — not only know what they are doing, but that they know better than everyone else. They don’t.
Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power is that the government has a strategy that will see voters flock back to the Coalition when the time for expressing an opinion that matters — at the ballot box — arrives next year. It doesn’t, and unless things change, they won’t.
And part of the problem (and this might sound odd coming from someone who identifies as sitting on the conservative wing of the Liberal Party) is that the Liberal Right, despite some disillusioned drift over two poor years in government, still retains overwhelming numerical dominance of both the Liberal party room and the organisational wing that enables Credlin and others like her — husband Brian Loughnane just one of many — to remain in positions at considerable expense to the party which they have discharged very, very badly indeed.
Once again — just to keep the point central — a government so entrenched in a losing electoral position cannot be regarded as either a glittering testament to those in charge behind the scenes and/or a triumph of “astute” political practice.
My criticisms of the government are on record and may be accessed by anyone wishing to sift through the archives of this site, and I would make the point that whilst I use colourful language from time to time — phrasing my points in sometimes absolutist and even confrontational terms — the views expressed here are hardly extreme even if the terminology used to give voice to them is. After all, there needs to be a little sizzle provided with the sausage, so to speak.
But van Onselen rightly lists out a throng of higher-profile commentators than myself: Janet Albrechtsen, Grace Collier, Miranda Devine, Niki Savva, Peter Costello, Chris Kenny, John Roskam, Tim Wilson, even Alan Jones.
None of them are socialists or voices of the Left; all of them are naturally sympathetic to the Coalition and to the Liberal Party specifically, and for various reasons — just like me — are desperate to see the Abbott government succeed.
Like me, each of them is responsible for a veritable tome of constructive criticism in his or her own right.
All of them, like me — and like anyone else who dares to raise their voice in defiance — is dismissed: we’re malcontents bent on stirring up trouble, or trying to damage the party (“damaging the party” is an insult I’ve both heard bandied around and at various stages had levelled at me personally ever since I joined the Liberal Party in 1990), or we don’t “understand,” or we’re motivated by sour grapes over one thing or another, or we’re lunatics, insane, barking mad.
But all of us want to help: this is not the kind of “help” that takes the form of an adolescent fantasy in a grown-up world; different people offer different strands of thought, insight, expertise and competence that, in a shallow and reasonably closed system like a political staffing pool, might add depth and perspective.
Instead, as things stand, a shallow gene pool drawn from people of limited overall ability began fucking things up shortly after gaining access to the government suites in Canberra and has continued to do so ever since.
This week should have been an outstanding one for the Abbott government; after an initial lurch as how to respond was quickly canvassed and calibrated, its approach to the refugee crisis emanating from Syria was bold, compassionate, and I think well reflected community expectations and sentiment.
But on Thursday night, some fool in Canberra leaked word of a looming ministerial reshuffle — complete with not just an explicit hit list but also names of people who were said to be “immune” but who probably should have sat atop the list of intended casualties — and today, we see headlines in the press across the country of yet more mutterings of an imminent leadership challenge by Turnbull.
It is here, of course, that the dominant numbers of the Right come into play: that faction can do whatever it likes, it believes. But only until enough of the softer support around its edges detaches itself in desperation — and then Abbott, like the minders around him, become fair game.
And it is here that the crossroads — faced by the government, Abbott personally, and the likes of Credlin, Loughnane, and their assembled minions — has crystallised into one very big problem: just like it did a little over six months ago, and for similar reasons when distilled to their essence.
Now, of course — less than a year prior to polling day — an additional urgency has characterised that problem and the reasons underpinning it.
This government, in the absence of radical change, is certain to lose an election.
Such an election defeat, even to a charlatan, a populist imbecile and an intellectual fraud like Bill Shorten, could signal three years in opposition: or it could herald the start of a decade in the political wilderness. Nobody — not even the smug, self-congratulatory types in charge of things inside the Liberal citadel — can say with confidence which would be the outcome.
Either way, restored to office on a platform of rank irresponsibility and little else, the damage that would be inflicted on Australia by another Labor government would make the foibles of the Rudd and Gillard governments — and their cretinous, useless, spectacularly incompetent Treasurer, Wayne Swan — look mildly risible by comparison.
And for Shorten and Co to win an election to the extent disturbingly consistent opinion sampling suggests, dozens of Coalition MPs are going to be turfed out of Canberra and onto the street: and the self-interest of those people before the event is likely to be a powerful, and unstoppable, force.
None of this sits with the official version of events at the PMO or, by extension, at the Liberals’ federal secretariat at Canberra, presided over by Loughnane and aided in its defective but holier-than-though insistence it knows better than its critics as well.
But in the meantime, the PMO and the Liberal secretariat in Canberra can see the fruits of their handiwork in articles like this one from reputable journalists who have no association with the Liberal Party, are not noted for being sympathetic to it — far from it — but who can spot the facts of the matter from the crap served up as spin at a thousand paces distant.
On the reshuffle (and we spoke about this not so long ago: I urge readers to revisit it today) I simply say that not only should one occur, but names like Peter Dutton’s, Joe Hockey’s and Kevin Andrews’ — irrespective of the protection afforded them by the numerical primacy of the Liberal Right and/or their political enmeshment with Abbott — should appear on any list of ministers to be fired or demoted, not to be granted immunity from change: these gentlemen, and others like them (“Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane, Attorney-General George Brandis, and Employment minister Eric Abetz being standout candidates for replacement at first glance) are all responsible for different aspects of the abysmal fist the Abbott government has made of too much of what has confronted it, and should be moved on.
There is no point having bumbling no-hopers from the Right locked into the ministry out of “loyalty” if an election loss is the result: after that, there aren’t any goodies to pass around, to factional buddies or to anyone else. At least, not any goodies that matter. Opposition is not a commodity to be savoured.
If people don’t want Malcolm Turnbull to become Liberal leader and Prime Minister by way of a successful leadership challenge, personnel changes — in the ministry and the advisory pool — and the benefits that can flow from replacing duds who’ve benefited from “loyalty” with people who have the political success of the government at heart and the various shades of expertise with which to help engineer it are mandatory, even if they’re not personally sycophantic to Abbott, Credlin, Loughnane and his mates, or a combination of them.
Whilst I have publicly backed him for promotion to Treasurer, I will argue until I am blue in the face that Malcolm Turnbull is no solution as Prime Minister. But unless things change, drastically and quickly, Turnbull is precisely what the party may end up being lumbered with out of the sheer desperation of those MPs fearful of losing their seats at an election under Abbott and guided by the “expertise” of his “friends.”
Prior to both the 1998 and 2001 elections, the government of John Howard faced entrenched and far worse opinion polling than the present government does; on each occasion, the Howard government recovered to win re-election.
The difference is that Howard had learned over decades that options had to be kept open, and that change — however much he disliked it — sometimes had to be involuntarily accepted as the price for continuing political and electoral success. It is a lesson that is not evident in the behaviour of key people within the Abbott government.
His Chief of Staff — Arthur Sinodinis — now sits as a Senator from New South Wales; as the equivalent official in the Howard government to Credlin, Sinodinis obviously knew a thing or two about what it takes to retrieve a seemingly terminal government and restore its fortunes to a winning position. Credlin would do well to seek, and accept, the counsel of Sinodinis.
But above all, there is a wealth of talent available to the government — both on its backbench and away from Credlin’s chosen coterie, outside Parliament – that is not merely being ignored, but which is roundly dismissed as irrelevant.
Responsible for a ship of state following an eerily similar trajectory to the Titanic, such a closed position in the face of looming disaster is unforgivable.
I have always said I’m happy to work with anyone I’m satisfied has the best interests of the Liberal Party at heart; I have no interest in being an MP (although, yes, readers know of a certain threat I made earlier this year, which will be honoured if the specified preconditions ever materialise), and I certainly don’t want a public political profile if I can avoid one. Even now, I would be prepared to work with Credlin and the others like her who have been the target of this column’s invective if suitable circumstances arose. But I doubt an invitation to do so will ever materialise.
We can only hope, at a seminal and pivotal point in the political cycle, that everyone with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in the Abbott government even if it kills it — Credlin, Loughnane, the horde of abject lackeys and quislings they have assembled around them, and even Abbott himself — have the “come to Jesus” moment and embrace a change of direction.
The story of the unimpeachable value of this junta, however validly grounded, is by virtue of its execution an absolute fantasy: and whilst Turnbull might be the enemy they think they are holding in abeyance, and conservative dissidents punitively excluded to communicate that they are not at all taken seriously, an election loss to Labor — and to Billy Bullshit, of all people — will destroy not just the government, but the “legend” of their intellectual, moral and political superiority as well.
The ball is in Credlin’s court to drive change, and to do for Abbott what Sinodinis did for Howard.
It remains to see whether she is capable of doing so, but the indications this week of a disinclination toward anything other than more of the same bullshit that has fouled two years in government are not encouraging at all.