In her last press conference after she lost the prime ministership to Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard was asked about the role of sexism in her time as leader. She replied that it was not the whole story, but it was part of the story — and she was correct.

Similarly, sexism has not been the whole story behind the attacks on Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, but they have been part of the story.

Credlin has been the subject of a relentless whispering campaign from within the government, with virtually none of her critics willing to put their names to their criticisms. She is correct that many of these anonymous descriptions of her have reflected a double standard in which men are allowed to be authoritative and powerful, while women engaging in the same behaviour are referred to in more pejorative terms, such as “micromanager” and “bossy”. She has also proven a high-profile conduit for criticisms that were more fairly directly at Abbott himself.

However, Credlin’s advocacy for women in power rings more than a little hollow. Remember it was on her watch that the Coalition prosecuted a relentless smear campaign against Gillard and aligned itself with right-wing campaigns engaging in the most vile — and undeniably sexist — abuse of the then-prime minister. Credlin was also Abbott’s chief adviser when he designed a cabinet with a total of one woman in it.

Much of Australian society, including within the political class, does have a problem with powerful women. Credlin can attest to that: she’s now experienced it from both ends.

Peter Fray

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