AMID FALLOUT from former Liberal staffer Niki Savva’s book — exposing the internal dysfunctional of the Abbott government, in which Chief of Staff Peta Credlin was central — great effort has been made to destroy Savva’s reputation and beatify Credlin, with questions of whether Credlin had an affair with Tony Abbott used as a pretext. Savva made no allegation; Credlin is no victim. Those seeking to airbrush the record should get over it.
In some respects, the furious public debate that has erupted over the character of Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin — over the reporting in Niki Savva’s book that some in the Coalition wondered openly behind the scenes whether the pair were having an affair — aptly sums up everything that was wrong with the Abbott government, and why Abbott had to be removed from office if he wouldn’t get rid of Credlin.
We spoke about the Savva book — which I characterised as a “shit sandwich” served up to Abbott and Credlin that really changed nothing — a week ago, and rather predictably (if tediously) it speaks volumes for the level of public debate, and the generally far lower calibre of some of the people gaining prominence in the public affairs of this country since the Howard years, that the only aspect of the book that remains topical at all is the question of whether or not Abbott and Credlin had had an affair.
As I said last week, some might find the suggestion salacious and/or titillating, and if they do, then so be it: whilst I declined to offer an opinion (which I now regret in some respects) I don’t believe for a minute that Abbott and Credlin are or were engaged in an affair, but to be perfectly honest, had they been, I couldn’t have cared less beyond the obvious inappropriate nature of such a liaison in the context of the respective positions they held, which I noted at that time.
Miranda Devine — writing in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on Wednesday — correctly noted that whilst Abbott and Credlin would have found it unpleasant to be accosted by reporters demanding to know whether they had had an affair, the question itself was largely irrelevant: the central tenets of Savva’s book were the incredibly destructive management style of Credlin and the blithe, almost passive tolerance by Abbott of the political carnage it created.
I have spent a lot of time over the past few years talking at length with people deeply enmeshed in the machine workings of the Liberal Party (plural, several, multiple, more than one, spread across five states, can I make it any clearer that we’re not talking about someone with an isolated gripe?), and as a sideline to the main act — the unbelievable political and likely electoral damage inflicted upon itself by the Abbott government — there ran a parallel background conversation between 2013 and 2015 grounded in confusion, white-hot fury, and disbelief: that all fingered Credlin as the root of most (or all) of the trouble the government encountered almost daily was a given, but why did Abbott refuse to recognise the problem when it was right under his nose? Moreover, why did he not only flatly refuse to do anything about it, but allow several of his senior ministers to be trotted out publicly to defend her?
Nobody could comprehend — let alone believe — someone as intelligent as Abbott could tolerate the presence of an insidious and wantonly toxic influence at the epicentre of his government, who — even this week, as she sought to publicly “defend” herself — saw fit to note she had served as deputy Chief of Staff under Malcolm Turnbull. But the bit conveniently omitted from that story was that Turnbull had demoted her to the lesser role of Deputy Chief of Staff, which was an astute and prescient personnel adjustment whose importance went unnoticed at the time.
Ironically, it was Credlin’s effectiveness in lesser staffing roles — and, not least, in galvanising the opposition leader’s office under Abbott before the 2013 election — that made her presence as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister possible in the first place, and whilst some who worked with her in those earlier incarnations have also publicly attested in recent days to finding her problematic to work with, I am prepared to give credit where it is due.
But the evidence she was out of her depth as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister was everywhere: in the dysfunctional strategic and tactical manoeuvres of the Abbott government; in the fatally defective “communications” effort that government deployed; in the flawed policy framework (outside of “axing the carbon tax, ending the mining tax, stopping the boats” etc) it pursued, most notably through a suicidal and poorly targeted budget in 2014; and through its utter inability to articulate aspirations for broad economic, taxation and labour market reform, which are measures this country is crying out for if the budgetary malaise of almost the past decade, and if impediments to continued economic expansion, are to be removed.
And the reason this evidence was strewn as far as they eye could see is simple: all of it — the recruitment of personnel, the oversight of decisions, and meddling at every conceivable level of government right down to the shitkickers hired to shuffle paper in the electorate offices of backbenchers, everything — was tightly and directly controlled by Credlin.
As I have opined in the past, had this unorthodox model of administration worked, few would quibble. The problem is that it didn’t.
Credlin has, in the past, suggested that she only did what Abbott told her to do; at face value I find this incredible, and the expectation that anyone in Abbott’s shoes would instruct a subordinate to institute such a rigorous program of micromanagement is an extraordinary thing to invite fair-minded and capably intelligent people to believe.
But if we are to accept that everything Credlin did was purely the act of executing her master’s wishes, then either her movements were borne of Prime Ministerial brilliance whose integrity she singularly failed to translate into successful action at best or, at worst (and as I suspect), she was given free rein to virtually run the government as she saw fit, and completely fucked it up. The substance of the Savva book substantially verifies this latter contention, as do all of the bits and pieces I have been told by inside folk over the past couple of years.
As I remarked to an associate yesterday, Abbott basically made Credlin the Prime Minister of Australia: and if she or anyone else close to her is wondering why she has been singled out, it is necessary to look only as far as the politically ruinous outcomes that were constantly generated on her watch, which would have seen the Coalition beaten at this year’s election unless drastic action to alter the government’s course was taken, and which ultimately led to the termination of Abbott’s tenure in the top job — and of Credlin’s in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The point is this: with evidence that the way things were being done was wrong beginning to mount from the minute the Coalition took office, and Credlin squarely in the thick of the growing political damage and the increasing likelihood the Coalition would suffer an election loss as a result, nobody could work out why in hell Abbott — no idiot — couldn’t and/or wouldn’t perceive where the root of the problem lay, let alone continue to tolerate its malignant presence in his office.
It was in virtual desperation, and after more orthodox lines of thought had been exhausted, that some in Canberra began to look for more sinister or disreputable motives. Did Credlin have something on Abbott? Were they having an affair? Had (federal Liberal Party Director) Brian Loughnane — her husband — somehow guaranteed her tenure? Was it something else? There was no sensible explanation for Abbott’s apparent determination to cling like glue to the very element of his government that was presiding over its steady evolution into a train wreck. What was it?
Savva didn’t accuse the pair of having an affair; she merely articulated the fact that the thought had occurred to many in the Coalition when every other possible reason for Credlin’s continued presence had been considered and exhausted. She reported in her book that the question had been asked of Abbott. She also reported his denial. It is, unfortunately, beyond reasonable to expect Savva to be held responsible for others directly spreading accusations of an affair as a result of the publication of her book. But that is what has occurred.
In this sense, there seems to be a culture within the Abbott cabal — that persists even now — that Credlin was not only an asset to the government whose stewardship was its ticket to sunlit uplands (to borrow from a Churchillian phrase), but a figure beyond any degree whatsoever of criticism or reproach.
In this sense, it has been offensive in the extreme to regularly witness the accusations of sexism and misogyny that have emanated from Credlin and Abbott, or the utter bullshit that if Abbott’s Chief of Staff had been P-E-T-E-R Credlin rather than P-E-T-A, he would be seen as tough and decisive.
Such a hypothetical specimen would best be described as a bloke who was useless at his job: and if Abbott would have fired such a fellow, it underlines even further the enigmatic question of why Credlin (the real one) was untouchable to the point he allowed it to destroy his Prime Ministership.
Even former Prime Minister John Howard — who, one suspects, has a better idea about these things than just about every other journalist and commentator who has published on the matter of Credlin — has now admitted he advised Abbott to sack her. It was sound advice, proffered by a good many people, both publicly and privately, whose only concern was for Abbott to make a political success of his government.
That Abbott rejected each and every entreaty, made in good faith and with his own best interests at heart, speaks volumes — and adds to the question of just why it was Credlin was so special even further.
I think the simplest explanation is that there are two universes in play here: one, called the real world, where most of us live at least most of the time; and two, a little bubble around Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin, and perhaps a small handful of others to a lesser extent, that was informed and guided by paranoia, rank amateurism, and sheer delusion.
Whether she likes it or not, Credlin’s reputation — and her CV — are going to have to weather whatever involuntary hit they sustain for her role at the epicentre of one of the most dysfunctional governments this country has ever seen; as anyone who has lost a job or otherwise not been a fit for a role they’ve accepted and had to leave would attest, such failures don’t make you a bad person. Generally, they do not mean you are incompetent. They are not necessarily a reflection on your intelligence, or your judgement in the ordinary sense, or your capacity to discharge complex responsibilities effectively. They simply mean that something didn’t work out, and in Credlin’s case, whilst I remain a scathing critic who is incandescent with anger over the fruits of her handiwork, I don’t wish her ill fortune or hope she fails to find something better to do with her time.
I have heard that privately, she is a great chick, to use the vernacular: very funny, very witty, very cutting, quite charming, and possessed of refreshingly intelligent interests. It is a side I will never see of her, of course, for it is well known that to dare to criticise her is to make an enemy. Even so, in the interests of balance, those acknowledgements should nevertheless be made.
But the idea that she should be deified, beatified, and held out as unimpeachably faultless is not only incorrect, but every bit as offensive as the suggestion I might be a sexist because I’m a critic of such a high-profile woman who simply wasn’t up to the last job she held.
And the notion she is some sort of victim — just because, in the absence of any more immediately plausible explanation as to why Tony Abbott refused to heed a wealth of good advice and deny every objective observation available by refusing to dismiss her, some asked the question whether they were having an affair — is perverse.
In the final analysis, what went on at the heart of the Abbott government beggared belief, and defied just about every standard of orthodox political judgement in the book. People at or near the centre of the Abbott government were almost desperate to know what it was that made Credlin so invaluable that the government itself could be sacrificed to protect her if it came to that. It was inevitable that at some point, someone would ask the question. But just like every other possible reason for her continued presence that was canvassed, that one turned out not to be the reason either.
Had Savva not reported the discussions and the thinking that was going on when the Abbott government began to unravel, she would have left herself open to the charge that she had sanitised the events she sought to record; that she had been complicit in whatever it was that made the cancerous presence of an unsuitable adviser a non-negotiable; or at the very minimum, some partisan whose “tell-all” nonetheless sought to shield the Liberal Party. You can’t have it both ways. Savva was damned if she did — and damned if she didn’t.
Peta Credlin isn’t a victim: and whilst she might feel bitter about losing her job, or aggrieved that so may functional, intelligent people refused to either buy into or be swayed by the bullshit regime she instituted at the heart of an elected government — or delude herself with the same Abbott sentiment that her impact was one of virtual perfection — she hasn’t been torn down by reasonable folk on the basis of her gender, and she doesn’t stand accused of “fucking the boss” even if some wondered, in absolute desperation and rage, whether that was the reason she was still there because there was literally no other plausible explanation for her continued presence.
And anyone who thinks she’s a victim — whether it’s Abbott, Credlin herself, or anyone around them — should take a good, long hard look at themselves, for the defective judgement in this equation is not being exercised by those who observe them.
Get over it.