Regrettably, it’s standard operating procedure in politics, business and the media to respond to criticism by trying to destroy the credibility of the critic. Attack is almost always considered the best form of defence — just ask Gillian Triggs.
So it should come as no surprise that only days after Abbott proxy Peta Credlin was essentially accused of undermining another Liberal woman, Credlin in turn lashed out at PM Malcolm Turnbull with the claim that female Liberal supporters were deserting him.
Interestingly, Credlin used the Australian Election Study (AES), the nation’s only longitudinal survey of voters, to justify her claims. The AES is an imperfect tool — as are all surveys — with one of its limitations being that its data is collected straight after each federal election, when the news media is brimming with post-fact analysis and attempts by political players to frame the outcome in their favour.
According to Credlin’s interpretation of the most recent AES, which shows a lower proportion of women saying they voted for the Coalition in 2016 than 2013, Malcolm Turnbull has a worse “women problem” than Tony Abbott.
There could be many reasons for the drop in female voter support for the Coalition under Turnbull, not the least of which is the national trend of women moving away from the Coalition since the days of John Howard, and which is in line with the global trend of women moving away from right-of-centre parties.
Then there’s the fact that Turnbull has proven to be the most disappointing prime minister since Kevin Rudd — perhaps even more so.
Whatever the reason for the Coalition falling out with women, it suited Credlin to emphasise the change to deflect criticism of her being involved in a challenge against cabinet minister and new mother, Kelly O’Dwyer.
Credlin works hard to cultivate the impression that she’s an advocate and supporter of the advancement of women. So it was a very bad look for her to be associated — even if it was only in name — with a plot to bring down O’Dwyer.
The women Credlin did support during her time with Abbott, in the workplace and in the media, are steadfastly loyal. And Credlin reportedly repaid that loyalty with patronage. She was known to provide favoured female journalists with click-worthy leaks and exclusive stories, and over-rule ministers to appoint her own female friends and supporters to ministerial offices.
However, there’s another cohort of women whose careers Credlin thwarted during her time in Abbott’s office. One doesn’t have to look too far to find the stories of female Coalition staffers whose appointments or promotions were blocked by Credlin, as well as those who clashed with her, only to suddenly go on leave and then quietly disappear altogether.
And then there are the female MPs, who, under Credlin and Abbott, were not “good enough” for the junior ministry or cabinet, but who miraculously qualified for promotion once Turnbull became PM.
Even the women who managed to get into Abbott’s ministry were reportedly given rough treatment by Abbott’s gatekeeper. One well-connected female journalist wrote that Credlin’s relationship with Julie Bishop was “toxic”, and that “younger women, including Victorian Liberal frontbencher Kelly O’Dwyer, seemed to spend years in the deep freeze”.
Credlin also demanded the sacking of a female journalist who was close to O’Dwyer, for having the temerity to write that the chief of staff had snubbed Julie Bishop by not inviting her to the launch of a mentoring program for female Liberal staffers.
The genesis of the mentoring scheme also points to the mixed feelings women had about Credlin during her time with Abbott. Credlin reportedly created the support program for conservative women after noting “the sisterhood” failed to come to her defence when Clive Palmer launched a sexist attack against her. (For the record, this writer was one of several women who did criticise Palmer for the attack.)
As is often the case with Credlin, there were different views as to whether this was the real reason for her starting the scheme. She may have also been attempting to address Abbott’s “women problem” by cultivating female staffers, or perhaps even trying to build a network of supporters to kickstart her own political career.
We’ll never know for sure, given the mentoring program barely lasted a year after the man who launched it — then-minister for women Tony Abbott — was removed from the Liberal leadership by his colleagues.
Speaking of Tony Abbott, the vengeful former PM obviously didn’t get the memo that he was meant to take the high moral ground on women this week. Credlin may have been more interested in settling scores with the Turnbull camp over the alleged O’Dwyer smear, but Abbott was busy repelling women voters by dog-whistling to the MRA-types who’ve shifted to One Nation.
Abbott used his new fortnightly slot with tabloid radio host Ray Hadley to take another whack at the Human Rights Commission, which would be scrapped under Abbott’s five-point plan to make the Coalition Great Again.
This time, Abbott took aim at the Turnbull-appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner who’d proposed the government could help to promote women in the workforce by requiring “contracted organisations to demonstrate efforts to improve gender balance, with an ultimate goal of reaching a 40:40:20 gender balance”.
According to Abbott, proposals such as this were PC rubbish and “anti men”. The former PM apparently forgot his own administration retained the previous Labor government’s 40:40:20 policy (40% men, 40% women and 20% unspecified “to allow for flexibility”) for women on government boards, although it seems to have only paid lip service to the policy given the proportion of women on government boards dropped under Abbott’s watch.
That situation was reversed under Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet-level Minister for Women Michaelia Cash who also strengthened the policy to 50:50 across all government boards with a minimum of 40% women for each board.
Unsurprisingly, Credlin dropped the “women’s problem” line of attack against Turnbull after Abbott flaunted his unreconstructed chauvinism to lure male voters away from Pauline Hanson.
She’s already framing the next battle with the Turnbull camp, suggesting Scott Morrison’s “good debt/bad debt” approach makes the government look “dodgy”.