With the influx of 24/7 political news media and its insatiable appetite for talking heads, we’ve become accustomed to a parade of partisans spruiking the virtues of their party or philosophical bent on our screens.
In fact, we’re now so used to political players also being commentators that, for the most part, we take a presumed bias into consideration when they present their “objective” views.
But only since ex-prime minister Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff and chief flag-carrier Peta Credlin joined the ranks of the commentariat have we witnessed what is essentially the channelling of a politician directly through a media mouthpiece.
Sure, there are senior journalists in the major mastheads, and hosts on Sky News, who like to think they’re besties with Tony Abbott and know his deepest motivations, but only Credlin has the type of access that secures that knowledge. And she’s not afraid to flaunt it.
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We’ve also learned from the woman herself that she’s a master at re-framing an issue (such as a price on carbon) to benefit her favoured protagonist.
So it was interesting to see the various stratagems that Credlin put into play on the weekend to justify Tony Abbott’s most recent step in tearing down the administration he once led.
Credlin argued the former PM had every right as a backbencher unconstrained by cabinet solidarity to publicly advocate positions that differ to current party policy. However, that argument holds no water given the same logic doesn’t apply to the Liberal backbenchers who challenge existing party positions on marriage equality, an emissions intensity scheme, or paring back capital gains tax concessions.
No journalist has yet called out Abbott on this discrepancy.
Credlin also defended Abbott as the champion of the Liberal party’s “base”, those party members and supporters apparently devastated by Abbott’s removal and unconvinced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s capitulation to almost every whim demanded of him by right-wing MPs.
Under scrutiny, this frame also proves to be as flimsy as the first. For a start, only 19% of Liberal voters want Abbott back as leader. And there is another Liberal “base” that neither Abbott nor Credlin are interested in defending: the centrist or moderate Liberal voters acknowledged by Howard as legitimate members of the party’s “broad church”.
These are the Liberal voters who approve of the job Malcolm Turnbull is doing as PM (70%), and who represent a majority or plurality in support of progressive policies such as Labor’s 50% renewable energy target (55%) a free vote in parliament on marriage equality (47%), and increasing the minimum wage (76%).
Yet the values and philosophies of this Liberal base are never acknowledged, let alone defended, by Abbott, Credlin or News Corp, and it is fast becoming an unchallenged orthodoxy that only the Liberal Party’s conservative base matters.
That’s not to say voters aren’t leaving the government in droves, and for the moment parking themselves hypothetically with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, because they are. Just as the “anti-politician” Clive Palmer was a magnet for disaffected voters in 2013, Pauline Hanson is proving to be irresistible to the same cohort in 2017.
But judging by the policy manifesto released by Tony Abbott last week — which Credlin claimed on the weekend should have been the real news story — Abbott, Credlin and fellow travellers like George Christensen are pushing Trump-like policy shifts to bring voters back to the Libs.
These are major changes in policy — scrapping the RET, scaling back immigration while irresponsibly linking it with housing affordability, abolishing the Human Rights Commission, and cutting government spending while giving tax cuts to the wealthy.
In short, Abbott and Co want to appeal to the basest instincts of people who are fed up with the hollowness and fakery of contemporary politics — the same people who won’t be satisfied until the government of the day has banned the burqua, scrapped no-fault divorces and softened gun laws.
Abbott knows no mainstream Australian political party is ever going to be able to match One Nation’s policy manifesto, nor should they want to, given it’s a barely coherent wishlist cobbled together by climate conspiracists, xenophobes and angry men’s rights activists resentful of being ordered to pay child support.
Abbott’s manifesto, and his associated plea to win back voters by out-Hansoning Hanson, is nothing more than another Credlin attempt to frame Malcolm Turnbull as unwilling to listen or do what is “necessary”.
This ties to another interesting rhetorical manoeuvre by Credlin on the weekend, where she framed the supposed unwillingness of Turnbull and his government to adopt Abbott’s reforms in the language of an anti-politics populist.
Agreeing with one of her fellow panellists that the government was heading to defeat at the next election, Credlin emphasised:
“That’s the numbers, that’s the brutal reality and that’s why we’re not having a reform debate because the government is desperately trying to hold on to power. And ministers are desperate to hold on to the current positions that they hold.”
Given the lengths to which she and Tony Abbott went to hold on to the prime ministership, this statement has rocketed to the top of the list of Credlin’s audaciously hypocritical observations since becoming a political player-come-commentator.
And then there are the opinion polls. According to Credlin on the weekend — and the Abbott cheer squad in the media — the government is terminal due to its low primary vote under Turnbull. The lesson to be learned from this, according to Credlin’s weekend framing, is “don’t change leaders (in government)”.
Let’s set aside the fact that at least two PMs — Keating and Howard — took their governments to election victories after slumping to a primary vote of 34%.
Only someone with a pressing need to see the opinion polls as proof the Liberals should never have ditched Abbott would fail to see other reasons why voters are telling pollsters they’ve abandoned the government.
The early drop in support would have been due to soft Labor or undecided voters who’d flirted with the idea of shifting to the Coalition after Turnbull became PM, only to drift away again after the new PM proved to be a pale imitation of the previous one.
But in more recent times, in addition to lure of Hanson, voters are leaving the Coalition because it’s dysfunctional and no one wants a wreck running the government.
Yes, Abbott’s so-called defence of the Liberal base is actually driving Liberal voters away, just as the Rudd-Gillard wars drove Labor voters away in the previous government.
Both Abbott and Credlin know this, and presumably don’t care. Credlin even got her frames tangled on the weekend by inadvertently acknowledging that Abbott’s Rudd-like behaviour was having a destructive impact. Agreeing with the observation that Labor went to ground on Friday just as the Abbott opposition did during the Rudd-inspired turbulence, Credlin claimed, “We did exactly the same thing. This is the same rulebook, we watched the same movie, all the way through the hung parliament.”
Then Credlin tried to regain her footing by twisting the admission into another poke at Turnbull, saying party members were angry the Coalition had profited from the chaos brought on by the removal of Rudd but removed Abbott anyway.
It was a neat little pivot, designed to blame the PM for the turmoil being brought down upon him by Abbott and his enablers. Credlin also took it a step further, accusing Turnbull and others who’ve spoken out against Abbott in recent days of blaming the victim.
Noting that Turnbull “took out the sitting MP to win his seat, took out a sitting opposition leader, then took out a sitting prime minister”, Credlin claimed “we have done this to ourselves” because “when you take out a leader, and that leader remains in the parliament as Abbott … you have to demonise them to justify what you did. And that is what happened to Labor; that’s what’s happened here.”
Each of her perspectives, presented by Credlin as fact, are easily contestable — just as easily refuted as the initial framing by Credlin and Abbott of Gillard’s carbon price as a great big carbon tax on everything.
Perhaps unlike that time, there will be politicians, journalists and writers prepared to challenge Credlin’s nascent orthodoxies before they take hold. Credlin’s Murdochian colleagues won’t be the ones to do it, neither will the zinger-writers down at Labor HQ.
I guess that leaves you and me. Are you up for the challenge?