Political advisers rarely give on-the-record interviews. But was Peta Credlin’s Marie Claire chat — and subsequent follow-up in the News Limited tabloids, reigniting a debate on Tony Abbott’s views on female issues and IVF treatment — part of a deliberate strategy to woo voters? Yes … and no.

“They approached us,” Marie Claire editor and publisher Jackie Frank told Crikey as the magazine hit newsagents today. But a Credlin interview wasn’t what the Liberals had in mind — that was “serendipitous” timing, the high-profile editor reveals.

Late last year Julia Gillard and a cohort of Labor female ministers were interviewed by Frank for an eight-page glossy spread in the Lodge (the one where Gillard quipped “I’m taking badass as a compliment” after Jezebel dubbed her “one badass motherfucker” for her misogyny speech).

In response, Abbott media adviser Jude Donnelly gave Marie Claire a call. Donnelly, a former Howard government and AFL spinner, was hired by the Coalition last year to draft a female-friendly campaign and “in part, to handle media relations for ‘Margie and the girls'”, as The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Lenore Taylor reported last October.

Frank told Donnelly Marie Claire wasn’t interested in a story on Liberal MPs, but they already had Credlin earmarked for an article about 10 successful women in different fields under 45 and wanted to know if she’d be involved. Frank says Donnelly replied: “Well alright, we weren’t thinking of that but we’ll put it to her.”

The Feburary edition feature dubs Credlin “the political powerhouse”, appearing with other high-achievers like Carolyn Creswell from Carman’s Fine Foods and scientist Dr Kylie Mason.

In the article Credlin calls herself “a right-wing feminist” and talks about how she sat Abbott down to discuss his views on women’s issues when she was offered the CoS gig in 2009. Her “career tip” is that “spin will only get you so far in my job — substance is what will make the difference”, and she says sometimes in meetings full of men “some idiot” will try and make her feel like the token female. She also reveals her hardest day at work was the day after the dodgy joke at the CMFEU conference, when she had to front question time with a smile after finding out her fifth attempt at IVF had been unsuccessful.

Does Frank think she was used? “We’re apolitical,” she said, noting the Abbott camp couldn’t have foreseen they’d been planning a Credlin interview but obviously wanted to get involved with the high-profile mag. “I suppose Tony Abbott took an opportunity,” she said.

After hearing Credlin had chatted with the fashion glossy, News Ltd Sunday tabloids political editor Samantha Maiden got in touch with Marie Claire‘s publicist and was given an advanced copy of the story. Maiden then requested her own interview with Credlin. She also emailed Abbott’s office a number of quotes he’d made previously regarding IVF, contraception and abortion and asked him to pen an op-ed about his current feelings (the column appeared alongside the Credlin interview on Sunday).

Credlin agreed to meet up for a coffee, but Maiden says she appeared “reluctant and cautious about going on the record” and it only became clear towards the end of the interview she would allow any comments to be published. News Ltd papers splashed big with the story on Sunday, sparking fierce and often cynical debate on social media.

“My impression of Peta Credlin is someone who has had quite a traumatic experience with IVF,” Maiden told Crikey. “To attack her about being honest about the fact that she wanted to have a baby and it hasn’t happened is pretty heartless. She might be Abbott’s chief of staff, but she’s a human being.”

But Maiden is wise to the fact Credlin is speaking to the media for her own reasons. “There’s clearly a political point to what she’s doing, that she feels quite genuinely that people have got the wrong idea about Tony Abbott and he’s not as black and white on these issue as people think… If Peta Credlin wants to talk about this stuff, I’m not going to go up to her and put my hand over her mouth,” she said.

Peter Fray

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