The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government by Niki Savva

Scribe Publications 2016
RRP: $32.99 pb

Credlin and Co: How the Abbott government destroyed itself by Aaron Patrick

Black Inc 2106
ISBN: 9781863958097
RRP: $29.99 pb

Reviewed by Dr Stephen Matchett

Gallery journalism is now less the first draft of Australian political history as the altar on which politicians are either deified or demolished. Whatever scholars write, it is rarely for an audience outside the academy. This means the West Wingeratti, who yearn for politics as theatre where policy is all that is prurient, get their take on political history from journalists who think a study of record is an ultra-long colour story with added op eds and footnotes.

There is nothing wrong with this; it is what journalists do and they are hardly crowding out political historians who are actually interested in writing about politics as it is practised, as distinct from the moral failures of politicians and the people who elect them. Australian political history is yet to be blessed with scholar storytellers like Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton and Robert Caro on Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose mastery of the archives is matched by a talent for insight and entertainment.

But journalism isn’t history, if only because immediacy is inimical to the analysis that depends on the passage of time. With less than six months since Tony Abbott lost the support of his party it is way too early for the dust to settle and for the meaning of what happened to emerge.

The problem is it probably won’t and the first takes on what happened will become the reports of record. Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government, Aaron Patrick’s Credlin and Co: How the Abbott government destroyed itself and Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen’s Battleground (Sydney Institute Review, February 2016) all argue Mr Abbott was brought down by listening too much to his chief of staff Peta Credlin and too little to anybody else.

In these three books, Tony Abbott’s fall is presented as a Jacobean drama – a leader places all his trust in an advisor who ruthlessly excludes all her rivals. When other courtiers, sorry colleagues, cannot bring her down they turn on him.

But this isn’t The White Devil, it isn’t even House of Cards. Nobody gets knocked off and the worse thing anybody accuses Mr Abbott of is weakness and a blind faith in his chief of staff. And, the worst Ms Credlin is accused of is a towering temper, a jealous disposition, a political judgement as strong as it is flawed and an avaricious appetite for power – which hardly makes her unique in politics from a P&C to the PMO.

People not getting on is no inevitable impediment to governing – as Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrated in Team of Rivals. Abraham Lincoln managed to win the Civil War with an executive made up of men who variously hated each other and thought he was a dill.

For people who work in or whose work is watching politics, it is easy to mistake office gossip for governing. What journalists who present themselves as insiders miss, in writing about politics as endless counting of numbers, shafting of opponents and shifting of positions is the real reason why prime ministers fail – they are just not up to the job. Not the ingratiating and intimidating, obfuscating and announcing that professionals who see every news cycle as what must be won to survive, but the real task of governing which is ensuring the needs of the people are met and their wishes obeyed.

Politicians, including some who even believe it, say that good policy is good politics. But this works both ways. Policy unimplemented is pointless. Those who focus on accumulating power and dispensing patronage and who work hard at keeping the trains on time are empty suits. So are ideas merchants who talk up a great policy proposal but cannot implement it. Nothing annoys the electorate more than a grand idea that is easily knocked off, less by those who oppose it than for want of detail on how it will work.

Kevin Rudd had guile by the gallon, Julia Gillard could count, give Tony Abbott a message and he would never tire of delivering it. They failed not for a lack of tradecraft, or even people skills. Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott at least could always command the allegiance of many of their colleagues. They failed because in the end they did not have what it takes to be a proper prime minister, an awareness of the country’s problems, policies to address them, the ability to implement their plans and the maturity required to keep the confidence of the electorate.

The message from the Nikki Savva and Aaron Patrick books is that Tony Abbott could not make the transition from a competent minister and brilliant opposition leader to lead the country. But it is a message, especially as told by Savva, which is lost in a record of personality failings and plain bad manners.

Both books on the end of Abbott make one fundamental error in explaining his failure; they fall for the excisionist fallacy, the idea that removing a troublemaker will solve an organisation’s problems  – and didn’t that work well for the federal parliamentary Labor Party when they rolled Kevin Rudd.

In fact, both Savva and Patrick make it clear that the paramount problem for the Abbott Government was not Ms Credlin, assuming she was a hindrance. Rather, it was (in one part) what the prime minister either did not see or allowed her to get away with and (in another) the government’s inability to stick to, and sell, the 2014 budget repair narrative.

For all the cruel delight her enemies took in Credlin’s fall, there was much more to Abbott’s demise than a rude chief of staff.

Savva’s treatment of Credlin’s personal qualities and political capacities was always going to generate media attention, an arsenal of anecdotes and examples of alleged mal-administration and mean-mindedness saw to that. Savva’s case against Credlin is built on three foundations; her personality, her relationship with the prime minister and her work.

That Niki Savva does not like Peta Credlin is clear from the start. The book is awash with examples, some sourced, most not attributed, of cruel and controlling behaviour of pushing and punishing staff, of variously instructing and ignoring MPs and ministers, of obsessive assertions of authority. One source compares her to Wallis Simpson; another named staffer says she was more in the style of Lady Macbeth.

But while she may have got away with metaphoric murder in the way she dealt with people, Peta Credlin was not the first political COS to be rude and ruthless. Sad to relate, the Leo McGarrys are always part Malcolm Tucker.

And yet, while Savva acknowledges some people got along with Credlin, including Christopher Pyne, her failures as a manager and colleague are relentlessly recounted, with no explanation. There is even speculation as to how a woman so lacking in empathy and courtesy rose to such a powerful position. This leaves Credlin incomplete as presented. There are ample individuals everywhere who think others exist only to serve them but most such people either learn to hide their self-obsession or never rise from the ruck.

Given Savva’s thesis that Peta Credlin played a big role in Tony Abbott’s fate, a bit about her background and what shaped her conduct would have helped.

The second criticism of Credlin is her relationship with Tony Abbott. This is what the media seized on. But for all the speculation about the nature of the relationship, Savva was careful in what she wrote, leaving readers to imagine the implications of some of the incidents she described. That Peta Credlin bought matching luggage for her and the then PM inscribed with their initials will strike some readers as unusual in a working relationship. That she spoon-fed, food that is, Abbott in public will cause others to cringe. Many may find the way she excluded Margie Abbott from an event plain rude.  And people with respect for the office of prime minister will view the way Savva describes her talking to and about Tony Abbott as outright impertinence.

But the question, which Savva does address, is why TonynAbbott permitted all of it –in that she presents the most scathing opinion in a brutal book:  “Even if she had offered to resign, he would not have allowed it. He would have been completely lost, so low was his opinion of his own abilities.” (74)

Says who? Says no one attributed as talking on or off the record. As such, this stands as an unsupported assumption. Many people who have known Tony Abbott will assert that he did a very good job over many years of covering up any lack of confidence.

Credlin’s third failure, according to Savva, is that she wasn’t much good at the three elements of her job – people, politics and policy. The book is awash with anecdotes about her treatment of staff and the way she was rude to MPs and ministers. And there is no doubting that her behaviour, and the prime minister’s acceptance of it, cost him support. But if her policy acumen and political ability had been as strong as her people skills were weak, it would surely have been a case of two out of three not being bad. However, Savva makes it plain that none were any good in government. While she ran a disciplined opposition, this did not translate to the tougher task of governing: “The volatility, the questionable judgement, the unnecessary meddling at every level, not only made for a dysfunctional office, it filtered through every nook and cranny of the government.” (44)

Scathing stuff, typical of the many judgements in the book which are mostly based on what staffers and MPs told Niki Savva – which raises the question asked, and then answered by many in the media, should she have asked Abbott and Credlin to reply.

The answer depends on perceptions of the book’s purpose. If it is a super-long news feature, a form that presents balanced evidence for readers to make their own judgement Niki Savva should have. Even if her two subjects declined to speak, even if they demanded rights of reply and provided rebuttals that Savva found unconvincing, the record is not complete without their versions.

But if this is intended as history then Niki Savva can present the evidence as she sees it and make a judgement.

Which is what she has done – this is victor’s history, a chronicle of why what occurred was politically inevitable. The book’s greatest strength is the war diary of the Turnbull challenge. The narrative of Malcolm Turnbull’s “group of eight” building support, counting numbers, creating opportunities and finally deposing Abbott is written mainly from their perspective. For people planning a coup in any organisation immensely entertaining it is too.

However, this partisan tone disguises Ms Savva’s achievement in making her book more than a true-politics thriller, a story soon to be forgotten as the caravan of crises that is Australian politics in this unsettled era of leaders not lasting rolls on.

In fact, Savva has a point to make that all should heed – the Australian political system has not failed, individuals in politics have:

There had been a lot of tosh said and written about how the system was broken, that reform was now nigh-impossible, that the revolving door of prime ministers – with Abbott making it five in six years – was proof that something was profoundly wrong. Well, there was something profoundly wrong with the system: the quality of the people in it.

Between late 2007 and 2013, the “system” threw up three deeply flawed and deficient individuals who became prime minister, then the system rose up to reject. The fact that this could happen is proof that it works well, that it does the job that it was designed to. (293,295)

Rather than anecdotes of bad manners and worse judgement at the heart of Tony Abbott’s government this is what is worth remembering in Niki Savva’s book. The electorate’s political sense and demand for good government are the automatic stabilisers of Australian democracy and leaders who cannot keep the ship of state steady are not missed when one way or another they go over the side to disappear beneath the boundless sea of politics.

But while there is no faulting Savva’s faith in the political system, her victors’ history is not the book that historians will turn to for a sense of how close observers viewed the fall of the Abbott Government. On the basis of what is published now, that will be Aaron Patrick’s Credlin and Co.

This is much more an observer’s than insider’s book. While Aaron Patrick is clearly connected with Liberal Party people, obviously providing examples and ideas, he still relies on the clips and commentators for material. This is no bad thing – in writing about events with consequences still to unfold, distance can lend detachment.  While Niki Savva’s criticism of Abbott and Credlin is relentless, Patrick puts their performance in a broader context. There was more going on in the Abbott Government, he shows, than struggles for access to the prime minister.

Overall however, Patrick’s thesis is similar to Savva’s – “it is an incredible, unique story of a man and woman who tried so hard to hold onto power that they destroyed themselves.” (8) He writes the familiar story of the desperately unwise attempt to control Julie Bishop. He suggests that making an enemy Arthur Sinodinos “was the stupidest thing (Credlin) ever did”. There is also an extraordinary and far less widely known description of the PMO getting involved in defence planning, including selecting the replacement of the Collins class submarines.

But the tone of Patrick’s examples is more measured and his case more nuanced. Peta Credlin is not painted as malicious but in many shades of grey. While she was hated for her veto over appointments to ministerial offices, if her boss had survived this may never have come up, or at least been seen as a prudent stop on nepotism.

There is also a bit about her background, hardly enough to understand but sufficient for readers to get a sense of what shaped her. And while she is not made out to be a monster neither is she assumed to be utterly inept. In fact, she is presented as running a good office, at least in part, and with the “confidence, humour and conversation” to get on with blokes, especially older ones.

Despite the title, Credlin and Co is really about Tony Abbott’s failures, which shaped his relationship with his chief of staff:

Credlin allowed Abbott to be who he wanted to be: the good bloke, the philosopher, the weekend fire-fighter, the surfer, the orator, the man of action. If Abbott was a natural leader, it could have worked. But he lacked the most important attribute of all: judgement. (19)

Credlin, Patrick argues, only became a target when her boss was in trouble.

Patrick’s examples of this absence of judgement include the Prince Philip knighthood, which was all Tony Abbott’s own making – there is no mention of Credlin being involved. His almost all male cabinet and making himself minister for women, was “one of the biggest jokes of his government”.  And he did not treat ministers with respect. Above all, Patrick presents Abbott as a man out of touch with the country he failed to lead.

His failure was innate. Abbott was unable to lead modern Australia because, in outlook and values, he wasn’t a modern Australian. Even though he surfed, fought bushfires and walked like he had just got off a horse, Abbott’s political consciousness and personal values stemmed from 1950s England, the country and era of his birth. In effect, Australia was led by a foreigner: a man out of sync with the nation’s aspirations, values and sense of place in the world. … He believed too much in an Australia that didn’t exist anymore: an Anglo-Saxon Australia of Sunday church, white wedding dresses and male bonding on the sporting field and at the bar.

This is less a stretch than nonsense on stilts; a view from the urbane world of journalism, written from behind what John Black calls the goat cheese curtain.

Certainly a bunyip knighthood for Prince Phillip was widely considered an Anglophile anachronism but otherwise there is nothing especially eccentric about Abbott’s belief in family and community. As for religion, worship is strong in Australia; it’s just that many of us go to mosque, temple or synagogue.

In fact, Patrick knows why a slim majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party decided Abbott had failed as prime minister – it was not because he was a social conservative, it was because he could not convince the electorate that he was up to the challenges of change.

He wasn’t interested in economics. He wasn’t a great compromiser. He wasn’t an effective communicator. Possibly worst of all, he didn’t seem to believe in the case for overhauling the economy – a step taken by every successful prime minister in modern Australian history.

We will never know whether the voters would have judged Abbott that way – but if he had led the Coalition to defeat in this year’s election there is nothing in either of these two books that makes a completely convincing case that his chief of staff would have been a cause, let alone the cause.