Parsing the sexual politics of the intense focus on Peta Credlin in Niki Savva’s new book, Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government, quickly leads one into some murky waters.
The emerging narrative of recent days, fed by extracts from Savva’s book, isn’t merely of Credlin as a tyrannical bully but as the woman who — somehow — robbed Tony Abbott of his political mojo and turned him into Australia’s most dysfunctional and worst prime minister.
Was Credlin a bully? I worked closely with her as a public servant in 2006 and enjoyed it, but I was aware that if you didn’t do your job to the standard she hoped for, she made her feelings clear. That’s exactly as it should be in an environment as demanding as politics. But maybe my status as a public servant protected me. Clearly a number of others had a different experience with her, and 2006 is now a long time ago. More peculiar is the complaint that, in effect, she bullied Abbott by abusing him. Which prime minister has never had an adviser swear at them? Prime minister Kevin Rudd, another dud leader, and his young team often had foul-mouthed exchanges in front of others. Bob Hawke was harangued and hectored by his advisers about how he had performed in the media. Was Credlin’s sin more that her swearing was unladylike?
But the issue of a rumoured affair (for which there has never been any evidence and which is denied by both) is where the sexual politics are most exposed — and not just about Credlin. For years, there have been rumours not merely about an Abbott-Credlin affair but, going back further, all sorts of false claims about Abbott’s sexuality and marriage, as if his internal and external enemies believe that his masculine persona is somehow particularly vulnerable on that front.
But also underlying the affair claim is a sense that Abbott’s judgement was profoundly undermined because he was so entranced and besotted with his chief of staff. In this framing, Credlin, the statuesque, elegant woman with the leonine hair, emasculated Abbott, rendering this political titan who destroyed two Labor prime ministers suddenly feeble and incapable. It’s a familiar narrative, of course, one that goes back thousands of years. That they were both married to others adds a frisson of traditional values comeuppance — in melodrama, straying from the marital home must always be punished.
Never mind that Credlin was crucial to Abbott’s remarkable performance as opposition leader. Never mind that it was Abbott’s ministerial colleagues who repeatedly bungled and gaffed along with their leader — his senior colleagues and his treasurer, most of all. Credlin must be the first woman to not merely to drain a besotted male of his judgement and power, but to drain his colleagues as well.
Credlin’s failure, in fact, was not that she changed Abbott as PM, but that she failed to change him enough. His failure was rooted in his inability to understand that being prime minister involved far more than the relentless negativity that made him such a potent opposition leader. For Abbott, the 2013 election meant his elevation to the role of opposition leader-in-chief, tearing down what others — mostly Labor — had built and demonising whatever it suited him to oppose. But national leadership is far more than that. A good political leader also needs to be positive, to offer voters a sense of national vision. That’s why a PM needs attack dogs so that he or she can remain above the fray. Abbott was always his own best attack dog as opposition leader, but playing that role as prime minister rapidly undermined his standing with voters.
Time and again, Abbott had opportunities to display true, positive leadership — on MH17, on the Lindt cafe siege, when Rosie Batty became Australian of the Year and the national conversation turned to domestic violence. At times he seemed to understand that a gentler, less truculent tone made him more effective as leader. But the attack dog would always return, whether the target was Labor, Australia’s Muslim communities, or the ABC. That was Credlin’s failure, to the extent that it wasn’t Abbott’s; if she had succeeded there, all the alleged bullying and abuse and control freakery wouldn’t have mattered — in fact, probably would have been acknowledged as part of her effective management. Success has a way of glossing over people’s personal faults.
And oddly enough, the restoration of a much more traditional dynamic in the PMO hasn’t replaced dysfunction with good government. Turnbull’s chief of staff is his former communications secretary, Drew Clarke. It’s almost literally impossible to find a more contrasting figure to Credlin. But the government is scarcely performing better than Abbott’s. Just yesterday, we were treated to genuinely weird sight of Attorney-General George Brandis committing to a same-sex marriage plebiscite by the end of the year and, within hours, the PMO in effect rebuking him by saying it might not be this year at all. This is a government that seems to struggle with getting even the basics, like ensuring all ministers are across the key points of high-profile policies, right. And there’s not a leopard-print outfit in sight.