Appeared in Australian Spectator, 11 June 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/office-politics-2/
Credlin & Co: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself
By Aaron Patrick
Black Inc, pp.320, $30.00, ISBN: 9781863958097
Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction
By Paul Strangio, Paul ‘t Hart and James Walter
Melbourne University Press, pp.312, $50.00, ISBN: 9780522868722
This book is not about what the title suggests. Yes, as Tony Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin held a position of great influence and reflected power. But if Aaron Patrick is somehow implying that she ran the government, and that therefore the blame for its failure – and it did fail: regrettably, unfortunately, but undeniably – rests with her then he has misunderstood the nature of employment. Ultimately, the responsibility goes to Abbott and he alone.
This is not to deny the dynamic between them. Interestingly, Abbott inherited her when he rolled Malcolm Turnbull to become Opposition Leader, although it appears that they clicked early. They shared a world view and a perception of politics as based on ideology, conflict and control, even though their backgrounds were very different. Credlin came from rural Victoria and had worked her way up through the party machine, although she was never one of the backroom number-counters and conciliators.
There have been some very effective pairings in Australian politics, between PMs and senior ministers and also between leaders and staffers. But in most cases they have involved opposites that balanced each other’s strengths and compensated for weaknesses. With Abbott and Credlin, there was the opposite effect, mutually reinforcing the tendency for centralisation, personalisation, and meddling. Patrick devotes a good number of pages recounting how ministers had important decisions taken out of their hands by the PM’s office – the Minister for Defence in particular must have started to wonder what his job actually was – as well as the growing number of ‘captain’s picks’. Media management was centralised in the PMO, which might have worked, except that even senior journalists were treated as enemies to be controlled and, if needed, bludgeoned.
The problem with reading this is that none of it is particularly new. Patrick (a print editor with the Australian Financial Review) appears to have done his research by going through the Fairfax pile of press clippings, and as a result the book has an Age/SMH take on events (his 2013 book, Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart, suffered similiarly). He airily dismisses the achievements of the Abbott government as ‘doing nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people’. He has little to say about the block-everything strategy of the opposition parties in the Senate, even if it meant voting against their own policies.
In the middle part of the book Patrick seems to lose the thread of what he is talking about. Why, for example, is there a chapter about Bill Shorten in this book? Why is there an excursion into the history of privatisation in New South Wales? There are long sections of the book in which Credlin and Abbott are hardly mentioned. It smells suspiciously like filler.
He is on stronger ground when he discusses the failure of Abbott to cultivate the backbench of his party, and to communicate with Senate crossbenchers. He notes that Howard, by contrast, spent a good deal of time talking with people, constantly testing the wind. Abbott played the role as quasi-presidential, and so was astonished when a chunk of the party expressed their dissatisfaction in the first spill-that-wasn’t attempt. He said he would learn from the experience, and for a while he did, but he soon reverted to type. And he made many decisions that were simply wrong. Significantly, it was a symbolic move, the award of a knighthood to Prince Phillip, which convinced many people that he would never get any better. Maybe he would have, if Credlin had not been there to assure him that everything was fine, but that is speculative.
When the Turnbull challenge came, it was a surprise that Abbott retained a measure of support. The tragedy of his leadership was that he was never able to make the transition from party chieftain to national leader. This is, mind you, a very difficult thing to do, and in recent memory only Howard and Hawke achieved it (the returns for Turnbull are not yet in). Yes, it was deeply unfair that the Left gave him no leeway, no respect of mandate, no benefit of the doubt. But it’s politics; fair doesn’t enter into it.
Patrick goes through these events in a workmanlike fashion but he never really digs deep. Why did Abbott raise such hatred amongst his opponents? One important case is when his daughter’s receipt of a scholarship was used as a weapon to attack him. This was a new low: an unwritten rule, to that time, had been that you never dragged in the family. Patrick describes the event but does not analyse it – presumably, he has no problem with this sort of tactic.
Likewise, he notes that the commentariat endlessly repeated the allegations over a wall-punching incident from Abbott’s university days but went very quiet when Shorten was accused of rape, a much more serious charge. Why? Why did the Left hate Abbott so much? It went beyond policy differences, beyond party antipathy, beyond rational explanation. And why did the Left (and, for that matter, the Right) so vociferously attack Credlin, when they might have been expected to give a strong-minded woman who had risen to the top a little praise, at least? Something else was at work, but Patrick backs away from asking the tough questions.
Despite all this, Credlin & Co is not an entirely bad book, despite the rather misleading title. It would have been much improved by broader sources of research and a willingness to delve more into root causes. Think of it, like the Abbott government, as an opportunity missed.
In case anyone was under the impression that being Prime Minister was easy, there is Settling the Office. It examines how the role developed through different leaders from Barton to Chifley, in a political environment that had not yet crystallised into a two-bloc system.
A key point is that the PM did not have a department of his own, and only a small office, so the job was more about co-ordination and management. Nevertheless, the outlines of the position as it would later operate started to emerge fairly early, especially in relation to Cabinet. But for the four decades after Federation, the PM role was a unique (and uniquely Australian) mix, a combination of muddle-through administration and get-it-done pragmatism. This book is a significant contribution to political history, and a reminder that everything has a beginning.