Since the rapid but not entirely unexpected end of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, nothing has fascinated political journalists covering the postmortem more than the relationship between the prime minister and his chief of staff.

In part one of a series on the downfall of the Abbott government published by Fairfax online overnight (and in the papers this morning), The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher lists a series of examples of Credlin’s controlling behaviour, each more bizarre than the last.

She is described as both deciding on the floral arrangements for a dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G20 and setting the agenda for the meeting. Hartcher writes that she boasted of  doing 20-hour days six days a week. Perhaps most memorably, he says she personally took over the reconfiguration of the prime minister’s VIP jet, which had been the purview of the air force. Tony Abbott was warned by his numbers man Eric Abetz, Hartcher writes, that Peta Credlin was the No. 1 problem for his government:

“At the heart of the Abbott government was the relationship between the prime minister and his chief of staff, and it had an intensity that frustrated, infuriated and baffled many elected MPs and senators.”

Most of the criticism of Credlin is given anonymously — a fact she has complained about in the past. Hartcher’s piece is notable for having Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce on the record with his concerns about her.

Despite Credlin’s central place in the series debut, the piece isn’t actually about her. The promise of that comes tomorrow, in part two.

Hartcher is far from alone in focusing on the relationship between the prime minister and his chief of staff. She has been a constant source of fascination for political writers at both News Corp and Fairfax, and for magazines like the Women’s Weekly. The Australian’s Niki Savva has turned the cataloguing of Credlin’s alleged slights against Coalition MPs into a fine art (it’s been claimed in the The Australian that Abbott tried to get her fired for it, and Savva herself says that Abbott personally told her to stop writing about his chief of staff at the Oz‘s 50th birthday party last year).

Others have also waded in, with varying degrees of legal courage. This month, Fairfax’s Joe Aston salaciously wrote that Abbott was taking a holiday in a French villa with some of his staff (including Credlin), without his wife. The claim infuriated Abbott supporter Andrew Bolt, who wrote on his blog that Aston was implying Credlin and Abbott were having an affair. Abbott responded by posting on Facebook a picture of himself and his wife near Hadrian’s Wall. Shortly afterward, Aston had another tidbit, claiming that Abbott had stayed in a spare room in Credlin’s Canberra apartment for a week. Abbott later joked a cake offered to colleagues had been made by his “landlady”, meaning Credlin.

Anecdotes like that are unlikley to be the end of it. Since September, two books on Peta Credlin and her role in the Abbott government have been commissioned.

In May next year will come Road to Ruin, a Scribe publication by Savva, a former Costello/Howard staffer and veteran political journalist. According to the blurb, the book will focus primarily on the relationship between Abbott and Credlin. The story Savva promises to tell sounds like a drama worthy of Shakespeare:

“Abbott took more offence to criticism of Credlin than he did criticism of himself … he took her word above that of his colleagues. And that was what led to his ruin”.

Meanwhile, AFR deputy editor Aaron Patrick is also working on a book, Credlin & Co (Black Inc), due out February 2016. It promises “a story of a relationship that determined the fate of a government”.

Credlin hasn’t given many public interviews, but in the ones she has, she’s dismissive of attempts to position her at the centre of the Abbott government’s troubled period in office. Speaking on a Women’s Weekly panel in September shortly after Abbott’s downfall, she said sexism had played a fundamental part in her media portrayal (an argument Abbott himself also frequently made). “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong,” she said. “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail.”

“I refuse to be defined by insider gossip from unnamed sources where no one has the guts to put their name to it.

“And if you’re a cabinet minister or a journalist and you’re intimidated by the chief of staff to the prime minister, maybe you don’t deserve your job.”

Credlin’s centrality to the Abbott story is not new. From the start of his prime ministership, her media profile has been unprecedented. Coalition MPs believe she was a causal factor in what happened, and audiences have been lapping up stories about her for years (anything with her name in it tends to move up the most-read sections of news websites, particularly on Fairfax). But it seems there’s still more to be said.

Peter Fray

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