It’s been a busy couple of days for Tony Abbott on Twitter. Perhaps demonstrating what might be called the Leyonhjelm Principle, that the most outspoken free speech advocates have the thinnest skins, the former Prime Minister has lashed out, successively, at Amanda Vanstone, Aaron Patrick and Peter Van Onselen for articles about him or, in the case of Vanstone and Van Onselen, his office and chief of staff when he was Prime Minister.
The latter two make the point that, despite the looming shadow of the 30th bad Newspoll of the Turnbull government, the problem of the Abbott Prime Ministership was never merely or even particularly about polling — that was just a symptom of a deeper malaise. Both suggest Peta Credlin was at least part of that malaise. This accords with the settled view of the Press Gallery that Credlin was a terrible chief of staff responsible for many of the problems that beset Abbott, and in particular she alienated too many MPs and ministers, and that she’s best placed now in the idiot fringe of Sky News’ evening programming, where right-wing loons caper and gambol in the moonlight.
The uncomfortable fact, however, is that Malcolm Turnbull is vulnerable to a similar criticism, albeit from the opposite angle. Turnbull’s PMO is awful — probably the worst of the modern era. Time and again it has failed to do basic things right and let the Prime Minister down.
Who was responsible for that wretched “not his partner” line about Barnaby Joyce, that Turnbull himself had to disown in parliament? Who failed to relayed the news of Stephen Parry’s resignation to Turnbull abroad? Who hadn’t worked out who would act as PM when Barnaby Joyce was rubbed out by the High Court? Who scheduled a speech for the PM on the day political donations data involving Turnbull was released? Who has persistently bowled up political strategies (like the one focusing on Bill Shorten’s character) at the most inopportune times possible? Who has presided over senior ministers freelancing out of their portfolios and, as a result, contradicting each other? Abbott’s office often failed to get the basics right, but the problem became substantially worse under Turnbull: his PMO has either tended to make bad situations worse or has failed to provide the kind of whole-of-government political strategising that any successful government needs.
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In complete contrast to Abbott and Credlin, it’s actually hard to remember who Turnbull’s chiefs of staff have been. He commenced with his Secretary from the Communications Department, Drew Clarke, then Greg Moriarty, who last year moved to head Defence and was replaced by Peter Woolcott. Like Clarke, Moriarty and Woolcott were experienced and well-regarded public servants, not political operatives — clearly how Turnbull likes it, as former Communications public servant Richard Windeyer was his chief of staff when he was Communications minister. Former public servants avoid publicity and bring a greater focus on policy and administration to political offices, but they by definition lack the experience and smarts to combine the policy and the political into an effective package, and their primary experience of political bushfires is second-hand, from the comfort of the TV screen in their SES office, not in the advisers’ box in parliament or in a beleaguered ministerial office. They’re also not very good at telling ministers that they’re wrong and need to rethink something.
Turnbull, of course, is ultimately his own chief of staff, in a way that you could never say about Tony Abbott, who appeared to become totally reliant on Credlin and couldn’t even holiday without her. Turnbull could never tolerate a forceful office figure like Credlin, but if there’s one thing he could do to enhance his minimal prospects of survival, it would be to get an experienced, strong-minded political operator who could straighten out his office, critique his judgment and get it to support him effectively.