Savva’s tales have caused a stir this week, leaving the political press all a flutter. But dysfunctional or otherwise, Peta Credlin’s role in Abbott’s office does not explain his downfall. You can thank his failed policy agenda for that, writes Ben Eltham.
The political media has spent much of the past few days fascinated by the ‘revelations’ of Niki Savva’s new book, The Road to Ruin. The book is about the supposedly dysfunctional relationship between Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. It alleges that their chaotic management style ultimately brought the Abbott administration down.
An article on News.com.au gives you the flavour of much of the coverage. It was entitled “The best bits from Niki Savva’s explosive book The Road to Ruin, How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government,” which just goes to show that in online journalism maybe all you need is a good headline. The more “respectable” media has piled on too, with the ABC and the Guardian both covering the book extensively.
In the end, much of the prurient interest boils down to a very human curiosity about Abbott and Credlin’s relationship. Were they “having an affair”? Savva implies that they were, providing plenty of circumstantial evidence. Abbott and Credlin deny it.
Savva didn’t bother to ask either of them, by the way, which is not exactly what I’d call sound journalistic practice.
But the broader point could surely be made: who cares? Does it matter whether Tony Abbott was sleeping with his chief of staff?
In the scheme of things, the answer is surely no.
Political journalists love tales of infidelity and gossip about affairs at the highest level because, well, they’re human beings. Who doesn’t like a good gossip? Who doesn’t love to swap tales, apocryphal or otherwise, over a coffee or a drink?
However, the true test of the importance of a personal relationship in politics is not what happened between the sheets, but what the government did. In the case of Abbott and Credlin, the only credible conclusion is that their personal relationship didn’t matter very much to the fate of the Abbott administration.
The downfall of Tony Abbott was not because he had an affair with his chief of staff. It was not because of the way Peta Credlin ran the Prime Minister’s Office. It wasn’t caused by the supposedly chaotic way Abbott made decisions.
No, as I argued last year, the reason Tony Abbott was removed by his colleagues was that his policies were deeply unpopular.
The Coalition’s fall in voter support began early – the government had one of the shortest honeymoons in history. The slide started with broken promises. Voters were told there would be no cuts to health, education, or public broadcasting and no changes to the pension in 2013, and they assumed Abbott and the Coalition meant it.
Many were dumbfounded at all the broken promises. But they shouldn’t have been. Smaller government, cutting back on health, education and welfare spending and vigorous offensives in the culture war are all items of faith for the Liberal Party rank-and-file. No-one in the backbench was particularly worried about the 2014 budget, until it emerged that the electorate opposed it.
The leadership rumblings began only after a sustained run of bad polling, followed by the blunders over the summer of 2014-15, crystallised by the knights and dames fiasco. Abbott’s deteriorating personal performance (who could forget the onions he ate, or “Nope. Nope. Nope”?) then saw his party room support evaporate in winter 2015.
Peta Credlin cannot be blamed for much of this. Many of the worst decisions of the Abbott years were “captain’s calls” that Credlin actually opposed – the knights-and-dames debacle, for instance, or Abbott’s decision to stand by Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of the House.
In fact, you can run the counter-factual very easily. Would Abbott have won in 2013 with a different chief of staff? Very probably yes.
The Coalition led in the polls for nearly the entirety of 2012 and 2013. A dysfunctional Labor Party had spent years in internal civil war, bringing back Kevin Rudd in a vain bid to “save the furniture.” Any competent chief of staff would have focused on running a disciplined campaign that highlighted Labor’s unpopular policies and internal disorder.
Would a different chief of staff saved Abbott from the many blunders of 2014 and 2015? Again, probably not.
The hugely unpopular 2014 budget was the responsibility of Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. It was Hockey who smoked a cigar on budget day and who claimed poor people don’t drive cars. But the 2014 budget was also influenced by the Commission of Audit, framed by the Expenditure Review Committee and signed off on by the cabinet. These were policies of the Coalition government.
We saw no backbench revolt after the 2014 budget. Few spoke up as the Coalition persisted with policies that were manifestly damaging it, like the GP co-payment or a huge rise to university fees for prospective students. The same culture wars against renewable energy and the ABC that so distracted Tony Abbott and the executive were the favoured hobby-horses of many a Liberal backbencher.
In summary, as Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin pursued policies that the Liberal Party mostly supported. We know this is true because the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership – at the vanguard of a factional realignment in favour of moderates – has produced very little change in the government’s policies.
The hard right retains the veto on climate policy, on marriage equality and on huge outlays for defence. Budget and tax policy is still as mess. As Helen Razer argued yesterday, “Savva attributes the fault of an entire belief system to a single relationship.”
There is no doubt Peta Credlin was an important decision-maker in the Abbott government – perhaps one of the most important. If you oppose the policies Peta Credlin tried to implement, you are entitled to be highly critical of her performance. But that would amount to a criticism of her effectiveness in carrying out those policies you oppose.
This has nothing to do with the nature of her personal relationship with Abbott. As Jenna Price noted yesterday, “I wish Peta Credlin was actually Peter Credlin, because I doubt very much whether anyone would dissect him in quite the same way as they have Peta.”
It says a lot about the way the media covers politics in our time that the sex life of a former prime minister should be of such interest. But the significance of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship for Australian democracy is ultimately slight.
What matters the policies that they pursued. These policies were unpopular at the time, and they are unpopular still. Despite this, the government has kept most of them.
In politics, structural forces are more important than the particulars of personal power. Malcolm Turnbull is more personally appealing than Tony Abbott, but he still has most of Tony Abbott’s policies. This may be one reason why the government’s opinion polls are now falling.