The Peta Credlin Phenomenon

Tuesday September 13 was the Ides of September and the first anniversary of the secret meeting of Liberal Party conspirators at the house of MP Peter Hendy. The feature of that meeting of treachery was that the leading conspirator, the beneficiary of the conspiracy, was not present. He was comfortably ensconced in his harbour-side mansion sipping a Glenfiddich while awaiting a phone call from his underlings. The next day, Wednesday 14 September, was the first anniversary of the coup, the culmination of five years’ planning (according to Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher) that deposed first term Prime Minister Tony Abbott and fulfilled Malcolm Turnbull’s desperate non-negotiable ambition of becoming prime minister of Australia.

A generous person may hope that Malcolm Turnbull derives the full measure of satisfaction from his self-centredness, his ruthlessness, and his ungovernable ambition. The rest has been a disaster – a disaster for the Liberal Party rent from top to bottom and a disaster for many of Turnbull’s co-conspirators whom an execrating electorate booted from the political arena.

If people think that Turnbull’s crawling over an unsuspecting and trusting Tony Abbott to satisfy his lust for power and glory was a mere case of a prominent man’s worthy ambition momentarily getting the better of him, I’ve got a news flash to shatter that unfortunate misapprehension. Turnbull’s five-year conspiracy culminating in a merciless political coup was entirely in line with Turnbull’s character and actions as a businessman. Annabel Crabb’s 2016 revised edition of the suitably titled Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull will give the reader the full inventory of his ruthlessness, double dealing, and unconscionable bastardry. Crabb’s account of the life and adventures of our usurping prime minister will leave the ordinary person unfamiliar with what goes on in the business and political world gaping in astonishment. I should add that Annabel Crabb is an ABC journalist and can hardly be considered to possess much sympathy for anyone in whom she can sniff the faintest odour of conservatism.

I leave the Turnbull story aside to take up at another time because I want to remark on one of the main players in the Abbott Government whose voice was hardly heard during those two tumultuous years but increasingly became the subject of journalistic fixation. Those who had not noticed Peta Credlin until the Abbott Government took office suddenly became aware of a tall, striking woman who was Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff. The television continually showed her with Abbott either deep in conversation or not far away in waiting attendance, as if the camera itself was following her of its own accord. She invariably clutched a bundle of folders and exuded an air of confidence and determination. For most people, Credlin’s attendance on Abbott was surely all that one would expect from a prime minister’s chief of staff, a pivotal executive position in the government’s administration. But as the media’s attacks on Abbott became increasingly shrill picking him up on the merest pretext journalists’ attention turned to Credlin.

The leftist media began to behave as only the leftist media can. From a paltry basis of fact, an image was manufactured of Peta Credlin as a dark-eyed Gothic harridan who dominated a ‘pussy-whipped’ prime minister and bullied a cringing staff many of whom were driven sobbing from the prime minister’s office. Australian Financial Review cartoonist Michael Rowe, perhaps the most crudely ideological of the bunch whose sketches emanate from calcified leftist minds, sketched Credlin in full Gothic posture. No one in the media seemed to notice the inherent contradiction of the famed woman-hating right-wing brute, stubborn to the extreme, in the guise of a pussy-whipped whimpering prime minister who meekly succumbed to the badgering of a female underling.

If the leftist media was not enough for the voiceless civil servant to deal with, some of those fancying themselves conservative began to join the pack. Calls came for her sacking. I wonder whether Rupert Murdoch has realised how stupid he sounded when he started channelling the Delphic Oracle and decreed from his New York office that Credlin go. Tony Abbott, showing the decency that the Left is blind to, refused to sack his chief of staff because his unappeasable enemies in politics and the media told him to. There was hardly anyone to offer a sustained defence of Peta Credlin. The only exception I came across was Louise Adler, CEO and Publisher-in-Chief of Melbourne University Press, in the Australian of 24 February 2015.

Adler related how she met Credlin when discussing a new edition of Abbott’s Battlelines. She wrote: ‘in this private setting, Credlin could not have been clearer that this was a political judgment for the Prime Minister to exercise. Even on this small matter, Credlin “knew her place”.’ Adler was baffled by the kind and extent of the criticism of Credlin. ‘None of the criticisms ever levelled at her,’ she wrote, ‘is on the record, her critics being “unnamed sources”. Corridor gossip transmogrifies into fact.’ About Credlin’s terrorising of her staff, Adler asked as someone in an executive position would naturally ask, ‘Isn’t the role of the chief of staff to run a disciplined office, to know the detail of announcements and to speak her mind as chief adviser?’ Well, yes. Most journalists would miss this obvious point because they clearly have no idea of what it means to run an organization or business. Adler is the Chair of Melbourne’s Methodist Ladies College. In 2014, she invited Credlin as a ‘guest of honour’ to their annual foundation dinner. She wrote of Credlin’s appearance at the dinner:

The speech she wrote herself and delivered has been parsed at length and proffered as evidence of profile building. For the record, she was most reluctant to accept the invitation and expressly told me that the role of chief of staff was in the office, not in the limelight. She accepted graciously but only as a personal favour and a wish to support a school with a 130-year commitment to women’s education. The speech was beautifully crafted, honest, filled with humility and humanity. She wowed the 500 guests, charmed my own table of staunch left-wing feminist friends, and was immensely generous with the students who flocked around her after the speech.

This flattering portrait of Credlin was nowhere else to be heard. Not even a hint of it. A cynic may ask whether Adler was guilty a puff piece in support of a professional woman for the self-interested purpose of promoting a feminist agenda. Is there direct evidence to support Adler’s portrait? There is – an abundance of it now. It must be deeply galling to those leftist scribblers who delighted in kicking around a person unable defend herself to observe what sort of media performer Credlin has proven to be.

When it was announced that Peta Credlin would join the Sky News commentary team for the 2016 election, I was resolved to tune in from the start of the broadcast to see how she would fare – to see whether the naked vision provided by the television camera would in any way support the furious scribblings of the hacks from the Fairfax sty. I imagine I was among thousands curious to see how Credlin presented as a person quite apart from the role as Tony Abbott’s chief of staff.

The first observable departure from the manufactured image was her soft feminine voice and her composure. She appeared as what my dear departed mother would have called a well-brought-up young woman. Perhaps the first steps into unfamiliar territory – being on the other side of the microphone – resulted in some caution and reticence. More experience in the role of political commentator would eventually reveal the monster of the leftist’s imagination. But no, there was no such development. Credlin relaxed as the evening progressed but her manner remained the same. Nor has there been any change in her manner and composure during her regular appearances on Sky News. She is a stark contrast with the ill-mannered coarseness and vulgarity of many commentators on the left.

A razor-sharp mind in complete mastery of the political process and the mechanics of government, however, is couched in that well-mannered composure and softly spoken voice. Few commentators display such a grasp of the detail of any given political issue. Her analysis is free from ideological colour, although she is clearly on the conservative side of politics. In terms of objective, balanced analysis, she is the equal of David Speers of Sky News who the impartial observer must rank as Australia’s pre-eminent television commentator. I am not the only to make these observations. It is an intellectual pleasure to hear a position being proposed, supported by a close knowledge of the issues and argued with logical rigour backed by the empirical evidence. What a change from the cacophony of political and ideological bias that passes for political discourse in Australia’s media.

With this considerable ability, it is no wonder the Peta Credlin rose through several executive positions to become Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Abbott sought the advice of his chief administrative officer. Quite apart from that being the function of Credlin’s position, it would have been irrational of the prime minister to neglect the organisation and advice of a person of such proven analytical and administrative ability.

To that vast cohort of Australia’s leftist commentators, especially those in the Fairfax Group, the role of a chief administrator must appear as a mystery. You would think so given their irrational criticism of her carrying out the tasks of a chief executive position with vigour and authority, the criticism eventually degenerating into childish gossip with such unproven claims that Abbott called Credlin ‘Boss’ and fed him a mouthful from her fork during dinner at a restaurant. Most mature minds would be embarrassed to relay such nonsense. But what would you expect from a group of ideological journalists who have never been within cooee of an administrative position that demanded managerial competence and accountability? The emanations of the leftist’s imagination appear to be free from accountability.

If Peta Credlin has shown such ability and character in her post-Abbott role, how could journalist Niki Savva write a book about the Abbott Government with the title of The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed their own Government? It is a logical and pressing question. There are two answers, one of which I will sketch. Both, however, need considerable fleshing out with solid argument and evidence.

Niki Savva is a well-known media entity. Her husband works for Malcolm Turnbull. If Savva applied her own rule about such arrangements, she would be fatally compromised in her commentary on Abbott, Credlin, and Turnbull. During the period of the Abbott Government, she frequently wrote about Abbott and Credlin and their performance in the Australian. I read most of her scribblings. I cannot remember one single word of praise or compliment for Tony Abbott or Peta Credlin. I cannot remember one single word of criticism of Malcolm Turnbull while Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher gloated after Abbott’s assassination that ‘it was the worst kept secret in Australian politics that Turnbull, who had the Liberal leadership wrested from him by Abbott five years and nine months earlier, was determined to take it back.’ Savva showed herself afflicted by a pathological bias when it came to Catholic Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin. Furthermore, the evidence suggests she was selectively fed by her husband about the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office.

In addition to her deplorable bias, Savva’s writings show her as spiteful, vengeful and vindictive. She admitted in her 2010 autobiography So Greek: Confessions of a Conservative Leftie that she remembers slights and will choose a suitable time for retribution. Of more importance, there is hardly an argument to be found in her commentaries, let alone a sustained argument. Her commentaries are full of breezy assertions, lurid images, mocking sarcasm, sneers, and slinging-off. Her book begins on the opening page with a typical lurid image of Tony Abbott’s appearance at the celebration of the Australian’s 50th birthday held at the Hordern Pavilion on 15 July 2014. It’s a subjective image that suits her purposes. I’m willing to bet that no other person at that celebration saw Abbott in the same light. For the gossip market, her writing is compelling and invigorating stuff. It is so satisfying and reaffirming to have one’s hatreds and contempt approved and reinforced.

The second answer takes in the far larger and more substantial field of the criticism of Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin, and the Abbott Government. In addition to Savva’s book, there were three others that gave Abbott and Credlin a severe whacking: Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott by academics Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen; Credlin & Co.: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself by Fairfax journalist Aaron Patrick; and The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott by Fairfax columnist Andrew P Street. All these authors are firmly on the left. The facetious titles of three of the four books give more than a hint of the predominating tone. Already, without inquiring further, we have an idea of why Tony Abbott, generally agreed to have been the most effective opposition leader in Australia’s political history and winner of the 2013 election in a landslide, and super competent Peta Credlin failed in the task of government. The explanation is ideology.

It is my thesis that Tony Abbott hardly had a chance against the ideological forces drawn up against him, including those in his own party, some of whom cut ridiculous figures to the wider public without their realising it. Susan Mitchell’s paranoid Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man (2011) and David Marr’s preposterous postmodernist essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott (2012) were a warning of the ideological attack Abbott faced if he were to win government. Just one claim in Marr’s book – the punch affair – precipitated a period of Abbott bashing that went for weeks on end. During the period of the Abbott Government, journalists of the left abandoned their vocation, became political operatives, and prostituted whatever talent they possessed to crushing an ideological opponent who, as Susan Mitchell put it, was ‘the most dangerous’…‘of all the men who have held or sought to hold the office of prime minister.’

Of course, to deal adequately with the above four books and to demonstrate my thesis would take a book-length work. I realised that it had to be done when in a state of building irritation I read pre-publication excerpts from Van Onselen and Errington’s book in the Australian. I began my research and some weeks later started writing. The tentative title of my book is Tony Abbott: Political Lightning Rod. I take my beginning not at the start of the Abbott Government in 2013 but at the student rebellion in the second half of the 1960s. No one will understand Tony Abbott and the political obstacles he faces without an understanding of the moral and cultural upheaval that was unleashed in those years and which young Tony Abbott faced when he walked onto the campus of Sydney University at the beginning of 1976.

Gerard Wilson