Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarkably ham-fisted defence of his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, this morning guarantees that the distracting chatter about Credlin will continue, now with the added dimension of gender. “Do you really think that my chief of staff would be under this kind of criticism if her name was P-e-t-e-r as opposed to P-e-t-a” was Abbott’s line this morning, a ready-made gift for television.

Why Abbott thought that was a good idea is anyone’s guess.

One of the favourite criticisms of Julia Gillard in the latter stages of her leadership not merely from the Right and from many in the Coalition, but from internal critics as well, was that she “played the gender card”. Now Abbott has done exactly that himself in defence of his most senior adviser. On what basis? The one demonstrably sexist attack on Credlin has been from Clive Palmer, who in a sickening attack suggested that Abbott’s paid parental leave policy was designed around Credlin’s childbearing intentions. Credlin is on the record about her difficulties in conceiving with husband Brian Loughnane via IVF.

Otherwise, the criticisms of Credlin’s performance have nothing to do with gender — they relate to the strong command-and-control approach she brings to government and ministers, and to her judgment about the government’s agenda. Often, they have echoed exactly the same criticisms levelled at Kevin Rudd’s staff.

But pick apart the criticisms of Credlin and they appear less substantial.

Credlin’s controlling style is based on her years in the Howard government. She worked for Kay Patterson, Richard Alston and, as chief of staff, to Helen Coonan, when Coonan had carriage of two of the biggest issues of the final Howard term, the sale of the remainder of Telstra and media ownership reforms. Both, and media ownership policy in particular, were strongly controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office; indeed, Howard and the-treasurer Peter Costello were almost certainly privy to the plans of James Packer regarding Channel Nine once the laws were changed when Coonan wasn’t. Credlin has thus continued the dominant role of the PMO that she experienced in the Howard years. True, it complements her own personal style, which is straight-talking and relentlessly focused on outcomes. She is not one to leave you in any doubt as to where you stand, good or bad, which is a far preferable approach than other, more devious management styles.

Nor were there too many complaints about her dominant role while in opposition. There was the occasional blow-up from frustrated shadow ministers, but Abbott is completely correct to point out that Credlin helped him secure a remarkable election win. One of the notable aspects of Abbott’s period as opposition leader was how he — mostly — kept his discipline. Labor kept expecting the gaffe-prone ideological warrior in Abbott to break through, but Credlin helped ensure it didn’t, and was thus critical to the success of Abbott as opposition leader.

“Today’s playing of the gender card is another of those mistakes. Credlin would have explicitly advised him against doing so if he’d bothered to ask.”

Now, what was successful in opposition is being seen as one of the reasons why the Coalition is failing so spectacularly in government. But the centralisation of power in the PMO is an established fact of life. Rudd continued and reinforced it, with a team of young operatives far less experienced or competent than Credlin. So did Gillard, particularly after John McTernan — not exactly a shrinking violet — arrived as head of communications and demanded that the government significantly refine and simplify its agenda, to the frustration of ministers who found their policies didn’t accord with the direction the PMO wanted. Centralisation isn’t by itself good or bad; it increases the risks of a single in-tray becoming a bottle neck — Rudd’s problem, and seemingly Abbott’s problem as well — but it enhances discipline and, in a media environment that is now hopelessly fragmented, maximises the chances of the government getting out a single coherent strategic message about what it is doing.

That of course has been one of the key failings of this government — not merely has it failed to get its intended message across, it has allowed Labor and other critics to portray it as unfair and untrustworthy. This was what Abbott was so good at in opposition: preventing Labor from getting its own message out, instead framing the debate on his terms and portraying Labor as untrustworthy and illegitimate. Now Labor is repaying him in kind. Is that Credlin’s fault? She has no public voice. It is ministers who have failed to sell the government’s message. Who failed to argue the case for the GP co-payment? Health Minister Peter Dutton. Who failed to argue the case for higher education reform? Education Minister Christopher Pyne. Who failed to sell the budget and made a series of idiotic gaffes? Treasurer Joe Hockey. Who failed to explain the government’s policies toward young unemployed?Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews. Who said the ASC couldn’t build a canoe? Defence Minister David Johnston. It is up to ministers to effectively prosecute the case for the reforms they insist are in the public interest, and the failings of multiple ministers have little to do with Credlin — indeed, their performance begs the question about how much better things would be if these ministers were allowed the greater freedom the government supposedly needs.

The sniping from both backbenchers and ministers at her is to a considerable degree misplaced: the criticism is better directed at ministers who simply haven’t done their jobs.

And as plenty of observers, and Abbott himself, have noted, ultimately he is in charge, not Credlin. She represents his authority. He is not a political neophyte — he came to the prime ministership with far more political and ministerial experience than Rudd or Gillard had. The failings of the government sheet home to him — after all, he has made his own mistakes, not least in his absurd prevarication over broken promises like on ABC funding, and hyping his confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Today’s playing of the gender card is another of those mistakes. Credlin would have explicitly advised him against doing so if he’d bothered to ask. The comments ensure the focus on Credlin will continue, and as the political truism goes, the adviser should never become the story. Worse, they open Abbott, famous for standing in front of offensively sexist placards of the then-prime minister, to the charge of hypocrisy given his treatment of Julia Gillard.

But if anyone seriously thinks the government will be improved by removing Peta Credlin, they’re kidding themselves.

Peter Fray

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