The biggest rumour in Australian politics is out in the open — not that we know if there’s any truth to it.

Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin, to a greater extent than anything before it, canvasses the rumours that prime minister Tony Abbott was having an affair with his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Crikey first heard of the rumours when Abbott was in opposition, and rumours only grew more persistent during the two years of the Abbott government.

Suspicions of an affair, Savva writes in Road to Ruin, were serious enough to prompt a key Abbott supporter, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to directly ask the PM about the rumours, which Abbott and Credlin flatly denied. Fierravanti-Wells has confirmed the account she gave to Savva was accurate.

Savva’s book also mentions several odd occurrences reported by anonymous sources involving Credlin and Abbott’s behaviour. Savva is far from the only journalist to catalogue such things. But most have done it only to imply or allude to the unusual depth of the Abbott-Credlin relationship, without explicitly stating rumours of an affair.

To an extent, Savva has said, it doesn’t matter whether or not they were having an affair; in politics, perceptions are just as important as the reality.

But the justification doesn’t wash with all who’ve written about the period.

Two other books have been written about Abbott’s short prime ministership, as well as an extended online feature series by The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher. Apart from Savva, Hartcher referred most explicitly to the rumours, though he dismissed them as having little evidence behind them (“There was always a stream of innuendo, never any evidence,” he wrote). Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s Battleground made only a veiled reference to the rumours, and Aaron Patrick’s Credlin & Co steered clear entirely.

Patrick told Crikey the rumours often came up in his research, but given the lack of proof, mentioning it as conjecture was “unfair”, even though, he muses, it probably would have sold more books.

“Whenever a man and a woman become close friends at work some people — especially jealous colleagues — will say that they are lovers,” he said. “I felt repeating the affair rumours would be extremely hurtful to their spouses, who have never sought the limelight and have been very loyal partners.”

Given the seriousness of the allegation, Patrick adds, he finds it hard to understand why Savva didn’t seek comment from Abbott or Credlin (Savva has said they have plenty of opportunities to respond — and both have done so since the book was published). “I strongly believe you always have to strive to get the other side of the story,” Patrick said. “Look at what happened to Paul Sheehan. The more serious your allegations are, the harder you have to try.”

Media ethics expert Denis Muller from the University of Melbourne, is emphatic that Savva should have tried to get comment. As to rumours of an affair, he says their close relationship and its effect on Abbott’s prime ministership is fair game. “But the exact nature of the relationship, well, that’s private. We don’t know if it had a sexual element or not, and I don’t think it matters.”

As to reporting on persistent rumours, as opposed to an affair itself, Muller says this leaves journalists open to accusations of circular logic. The media foster rumours through innuendo and anecdote — it isn’t right to then report on the subsequent rumours without proof.

Writing in the Fairfax papers today, Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler — who incidentally, is Abbott’s publisher and has been proclaimed a friend by Credlin — takes a whack at Savva’s book. Some of the anecdotes in it, she says, are “laughable”. And she alludes to the fact that Savva used to work for Costello, who is a “frenemy” of Abbott (others have pointed out Savva’s husband works for Abbott’s vanquisher, Malcolm Turnbull).

Adler writes:

“Until the publication of Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, the private lives of Australian politicians were generally accepted to be off-limits. Now it is suggested that the former prime minister and his chief-of-staff were so intimately involved as to ensure their own downfall.”

Rumours also dogged Julia Gillard. But the reaction to their airing was different. When radio host Howard Sattler confronted the former PM about rumours her partner, Tim Mathieson, was gay, Sattler lost his job. When Piers Akerman said on Insiders that “a lot of people in the Canberra gallery have been saying the same thing,” host Barrie Cassidy didn’t let it pass without furious denunciation. Of course, Mathieson was not active in public life, but Credlin was and is.

Crikey asked Savva if she’d considered the impact bringing the issue to light would have on Credlin and Abbott’s partners. “Politics is always hard on families,” she said. “I understand that. However I was reporting on an extraordinary event in Australian political history and tried to tell as much as possible about what happened and why it happened.”

The source is also important, she says. “Fierravanti-Wells was one of his most loyal lieutenants. She met with him the night before the February spill, to tell him that the perception of his colleagues was that he was having an affair with his chief of staff, and he needed to deal with it, because if he did not it would ultimately cost him his job.”

MPs couldn’t understand what was happening to the government, Savva says. They were angry, frustrated and resentful, and searching for an explanation. “This was one possible explanation they landed on, and which Connie, quite bravely, put to him, then subsequently to Credlin.”

When Laurie Oakes wrote of the affair between Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans in 2002, he had letters proving its existence. He declined to comment to Crikey this morning, but in 2002 he said Kernot should have written about the affair herself in her book. Because she didn’t, “aspersions were cast on a whole lot of other people, blame was cast as to what happened to her, when obviously this underlying thing, this steamy affair, was crucial to what happened to her, crucial to her lapses of judgement. Look, it even decided when Gareth Evans left politics.” The justification is similar to Savva’s, who says the rumours of an affair are crucial to understanding why Abbott was ousted.

The other book so far released on the Abbott government, Battleground, made only passing reference to rumours of the affair. Asked why this was the case, coauthor Peter van Onselen told Crikey he didn’t have anyone on the record happy to refer to it, the way Savva’s book does. “Had we, I don’t know what we’d have done,” he said. 

Even if a source had been forthcoming, mentioning rumours of an affair would have required, in his view, a careful and lengthy explanation of the lack of proof, and of the fact that it was merely an allegation. Still, with Fierravanti-Wells on the record, van Onselen says, “journalistically there was a justification to go there”. “I should say that my differences with Niki on this are at the margins.”

Peter Fray

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