It was on again – all last week. Apart from the uncertain future of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, all political talk was of Peta Credlin his Chief of Staff and unquestionably the most talked of, written about, high profile staffer in living memory – maybe ever.
Over more than five years in Opposition and Government, the Prime Minister himself has lauded her importance in his office and the influence she wields on him and his decision making. Apart from normal duties she has been rewarded with the role of vetting Cabinet Papers from all Ministers, unheard of in previous administrations. Equally unprecedented is the place she has taken at the Cabinet table, where she reportedly feels free to speak if so moved.
She had the power to vet and reject staff appointments by even the most senior Ministers and to determine what staff may travel overseas with Ministers.
Such was her profile that Australia’s Security Organisation, ASIO, – not famous for its assessments – warned her to be more cautious with her own travel arrangements because of the vital role she played in Government. No shrinking violet, Credlin seems to share this view, having reportedly described herself as the girl who nearly won the 2010 election and did win in 2013.
She is, say some, the brains behind the PM; others that she is merely a major influence on him. And “no” say more, who seem to share her assessment of herself. She is, to them, a key figure across the entire operations of the Government. Abbott, whose political judgement is currently under heavy questioning from both colleagues and the electorate, has added to the legend with paeans of praise both in public and private.
The current hubbub over Credlin however is somewhat on a different note. Far from currently being seen as an ongoing Liberal celebrity, a significant majority of her former admirers are now viewing her in a different light. To them she is now viewed as a villain, a liability and a scapegoat for the Government’s current failings. At a time when her supposed talents for both boss and government are most in demand, she seems, despite the lofty reputation, to be coming up seriously short. And if Tony’s political instincts are so blunted as to leave him unaware of this, those of his colleagues do not appear to be. They now want her gone – a desire being expressed embarrassingly openly – NOW.
Abbott’s own performance and fortunes from the time he took the Liberal leadership have been, on his own admission, linked almost totally with Credlin. Now, for the first time, the lofty reputation associated with Credlin is being questioned where it most matters – in the ranks of the Government itself. Her real worth to the Prime Minister is under close examination. After all, despite her vaulted influence, Abbott was left for more than four years pushing his universally unpopular Paid Parental Leave scheme. It was finally dumped when rejected by business, the electorate and his own Party. She argued with, not against, her boss against senior Ministers on the introduction of a six month initial ban on dole payments to the unemployed – a policy virtually guaranteed to get negative votes from every under -25 in the country and many others closer to the problem than are the comfortable Northern Sydney home environs of Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Her reputed sharp political instincts failed to prevent his ludicrous decision to bestow a knighthood on Prince Phillip. In 18 months of Government she seems to have been unable to move the Prime Minister from his pathetic claims of achievement for his Government based on killing the Carbon Tax and the Mining Tax and stopping the boats. The last two of these accomplishments make no difference whatever to the everyday lives of any Australians. On the Carbon Tax a more lively Opposition might pressure the PM to produce a single Australian family which has benefitted from Abbott’s promise of $11.00 a week once the tax was gone. This promised benefit is a theme Credlin allows him to continue although power bills nationwide show the $11.00 a week to be another Abbott fiction.
Credlin, it seems, has also failed to appreciate that continued criticism of the previous Labor Government is neither some form of Government action – nor an excuse for inaction. At a time when polls are showing critical lows for both Abbott and his Government it is obvious this line is not working. Abbott badly needs something newer, something better. The electorate demands it and his parliamentary colleagues are joining in the push. But, between them, Abbott and his supposedly gifted lieutenant have been unable to produce anything to replace the whinge against Labor that he adopted from day one of his prime ministry. That theme, boringly overworked as it is, no longer works – look again at the polls.
Given the dire poll position of both Abbott and Government and the growing threats to his leadership we would perhaps have expected to see Credlin at her best in the last couple of weeks. Tony and everybody else saw last week’s Press Club Address as an opportunity to suppress the growing dissatisfaction with his leadership and to reassure the country that he knew how to secure its future. But Abbott was provided with no inspiring message, no vision for the future, which might calm those now anxious about his leadership. Several times he told us Australia needed “a strong economy”. There was talk of “more jobs” but there was no outline whatever of how either of these might be achieved. There was much ”where to go” but no idea how to get there. Otherwise there was a jot of xenophobia and much more of the by now predictable overdose of criticism of his Labor predecessors.
Is Credlin slow or is it Tony? Following his “near death experience” and promise to change and to listen, having refused requests (demands) for Peta’s dismissal, he must surely have employed his best resources on his road to recovery. But what have we seen? A continuation of his series of stumbles headed by a very unimpressive speech informing us of his narrow victory in which he included the very dubious assertion that there was no future threat to his leadership. This was followed by a stuff-up – bordering on deception – about the process to be followed in procuring Australia’s next submarine fleet when it is highly likely that in a matter of days it will be revealed that a Japanese submarine deal was a condition of the final signing of the Free Trade Agreement. Then he further isolated himself in his Party with the sacking of the insignificant but respected Philip Ruddock as the Chief Government Whip. Abbott claimed Ruddock had failed to inform him of the strength of back bench feeling about his leadership. No one wanted him removed. Credlin similarly failed to assess for Abbott the extent of the threat (doesn’t anyone in the PM’s supposedly efficient office read newspapers or watch TV)? Unlike with Ruddock there was a clamour for her removal. In what may prove another error of judgement, Ruddock went and Credlin stays. Then there was his inept disclosure in Parliament of evidence which would almost certainly be used in an upcoming terrorist trial. Then he put his popularity further at risk with an extraordinary attack on the internationally respected Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs.
NOT A GREAT FIRST WEEK OF A REVITALISED PRIME MINISTER AND THE START OF “GOOD GOVERNMENT”.
Under pressure, where is the evidence of the genius we have been told is running his office and where has this guidance taken the Prime Minister and his troubled Government in its first 18 months. We have a Prime Minister who, according to Newspoll, the poll most respected by both major parties, with a near record low approval rating of 24% and a record high disapproval rating of 68%. And what about the Government that Credlin and others have claimed she influences. The same respected poll has it trailing a rather colourless Opposition 57% to 43% – landslide territory – with a Primary vote at a Rudd-like level of 35%.
If Peta Credlin, with her reputed influence and control of both PM and Government generally, has contributed in any way to the dire position in which both PM and Party find themselves, calls for her replacement can hardly be seen as unreasonable. If, on the other hand, she, is advising otherwise and being ignored, one can only wonder at the lofty reputation of control and influence and there would appear to be little reason for the PM not to appease his critical backbench by allowing her to go.
But Abbott, in the old schoolboy marbles term, has chosen to “stick fats” with Credlin. Are we seeing yet another example of the Prime Minister’s poor political judgement?
Warwick Elsche is Pearls and Irritations’ Canberra correspondent.