14 December 2014

The end of Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin was one of the few Coalition staffers willing or able to stick around after the downfall of the Howard government. She hadn't landed a top-flight lobbying job or a seat in Parliament or simply buggered off to that old shack in the hills/sand dunes. Nor had she embarrassed herself like some did who couldn't really believe that, after 11 years, it really was all over.

From Brendan Nelson's office she would have seen how Labor's ministers configured the government differently; how they made decisions that Howard's ministers never dared/couldn't be bothered, and the pratfalls of their rookie errors. She would have liaised with Prime Minister Rudd's office on those matters requiring bipartisan consultation, and seen the same dithering and tantrums that his ministers apparently saw. She would have seen what happens when nobody in government can scratch themselves without PMO approval.

Yet, she went ahead anyway and made this government in that image.

By the time it became clear Nelson could not stop Turnbull, Credlin had become a symbol of Liberal continuity. They feared Turnbull was such an outsized personality that he would remake the Coalition in his own image, and imposed on him a Praetorian Guard ever ready to remind him that he was mortal. Credlin, Chris Kenny and a handful of others gave nervous Liberals a sense of continuity that otherwise eluded them, with an insanely popular Labor government and its renewable broadbands and what have you.

She was privy to the great debates of our age, and worked out ways to shirk them.

Then Turnbull began to stumble, and fair-weather sailors like Kenny departed, it would have been fair for Liberals to wonder about their leader's office. They lacked the capacity to judge it, having only Howard's remote office as benchmark. By the time Turnbull's gutless front bench quit one by one, at the behest of Minchin, Credlin began to scramble despite assurances that she'd be looked after. She was still polishing her CV when the Hockey-Turnbull-Abbott fiasco of December 2009 ended with the latter on top.

By this time Credlin was well practiced at lemonade-making.

Abbott had been a spokesperson all his life. Now he was her spokesperson, and she was in a position to impose terms. Say what I tell you, do what I tell you, wear what I tell you: now lycra, now sluggos, now a blue tie. Say "this government is a bad government". The press gallery share that sentiment, and all the old lions who might challenge you for the sake of being arsey are long gone (or in Oakes' case, de-fanged). The press gallery can't tell the difference between activity and progress, and neither can conservatives; they are united in their hatred of Rudd and Gillard.

Sometimes it just all comes together.

Credlin came up with the Coalition's two-track policy strategy: meeting donors in private to work out what they want and how they want it, while at the same time giving the media no indication of what their thought processes were. The press gallery loved it: praising Abbott as 'so disciplined' was their bright-side thinking about being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. Even now, clowns like Peter Hartcher try to keep the magic going. Some still can't work out what went wrong, and never will.

If Laurie Oakes can recall Ainslie Gotto and her parallels with Peta Credlin, he should have been smart enough to examine what an Abbott government might look like in comparison with other highly centralised PMOs, like Gorton's or Rudd's. If you're going to have experience as a political journalist, that's what you use it for: analysis, before the event rather than after. Leave the raconteurism to Mike "Abbott will grow into the job" Carlton.

After Abbott was elected his team went into a defensive crouch for weeks: what the hell do we do now? In his choice of ministry, Abbott slapped down those who had always supported him (more conservative elements of the Liberal Party) while rewarding those who had never supported him (centrists who actually won the votes from Labor). I pointed this out at the time and am still amazed that the entire press gallery couldn't see it coming. This is a vulnerable position to put any politician, particularly at their moment of triumph: Credlin couldn't see what the problem was.

Here's the thing about Credlin: she's not some political super-genius, she's the hired help. Candidates for public office cop a lot of stick but they put their very faces and names and reputations out there in the community; people like Credlin are known only to wonks like you and me, dear reader. It's easy to craft a message and get others to sell it when the message is well received (or given the benefit of the doubt, as the Coalition's was way back in 2013). It's harder when the message is less well received.

Consider Joe Hockey, who had to sell WorkChoices in 2007 and now the 2014 budget: some policies just can't be sold, and no amount of brickbats or bouquets from Credlin will change that.

Credlin was happy to use her fertility issues to try and deflect bad news from Abbott, and all that's done is two things. First, it reinforces the idea that only women who already have a deep pre-existing relationship with Tony Abbott get anything from this government. Second, there is no lasting policy legacy surrounding fertility treatments: would you pay five or seven bucks to subsidise someone's fertility treatment? All that power, and no legacy. The government angrily denies that paid parental leave is Abbott's gift to Credlin. It's another of those policies where those who stand to benefit keep quiet and watch helplessly as the government botches the execution - and now the process of reforming it. Abbott wants to ask for help but has no goodwill to draw upon, and fears losing control of the narrative. Credlin has never done public advocacy in her life.

In this article is the strengths and weaknesses of the press gallery: Samantha Maiden has the access to get the story, but she's either so compromised or so thick that she can't see it for what it is.

The Whip is an office that has existed in parliamentary practice for centuries. The job involves getting out the vote in the short term, but over the longer term maintaining a relationship with the backbench for the leader to use as a sounding board.

Howard, with direct experience of not only being elected but also dumped by the Coalition backbench, used his Whips assiduously. He visited marginal electorates and insisted on impromptu meet-and-greets; if people met him with warmth he knew he was travelling OK, tight politeness or hostility meant trouble. Abbott and Credlin just don't do impromptu, and are poorer for it; they rely more heavily on wankers like Textor than Howard ever did, and Textor treats people who rely on him too heavily with contempt (e.g. the press gallery).

This is why Maiden is stupid not to recognise the importance of Entsch speaking out. Cut out all that cassowary-wrasslin' shit at the top of her piece, and that photo makes him look like one of Eleanor Robertson's Old Farts. Entsch was Whip in Opposition; Ruddock is Whip now. The fact that a Whip is speaking out means the backbench are deeply, structurally unhappy. Fear of being unemployed in 2016 can't be allayed with a cup of tea and a smile, or even another clenched-teeth threat. Nobody wants to be part of a government that rings down through the ages as a political punchline. These people are going to be asked by grandchildren yet unborn, "why didn't you just tell Peta Credlin to fuck off?".

A government can survive without this or that person as PM's Chief of Staff, but no government can survive without a backbench. It's a pity that Maiden missed that, or couldn't face it. Bill Shorten's relationship with his backbench is why he's leader and not Albanese. Rudd had a great relationship with his backbench, until he didn't. Howard knew what that's like. Abbott has done what he's been told all his life, and expects others to do the same - as does Credlin. That's why they're at sea with autonomous individuals in the Senate (and elsewhere, like the White House). They expect to crack the whip, not the other way around.
Some suggest that Kevin Andrews for example would make a delightful ambassador to the Holy See.
Are you crazy? The defeat of the Napthine government has discredited moderate, Hamerite liberalism in Victoria, and Kevin Andrews' homeboys have been vindicated. The man is practically skiting about how he's going to micromanage the lives of the fallen until they reach the sunlit uplands of God's mercy.

Look at how Andrews dispatched Conrad Xanthos. Look at how Andrews kyboshed the Northern Territory's euthanasia law as a backbencher. Credlin would have no chance against Andrews, and the political limitations of 104 Exhibition would be brutally exposed if she took him on. Voters in the electorate of Menzies are the most conservative in Victoria. As if they are going to vote for a woman who dresses like a Gold Coast property developer's second ex-wife.
Has anyone else noticed that Malcolm Turnbull is ­awfully quiet lately?
Has anyone noticed that Maiden referenced Ruddock in her story and didn't follow through with him? Reading over that story again I'd suggest Ruddock is more of a key figure than Turnbull at the moment. Have you got Ruddock's number, Samantha? He has yours.

Turnbull is keeping his head down because of the unpopularity of his cuts to public broadcasters, that leave us at the mercy of the sorts of people who think Samantha Maiden understands politics. If Turnbull lashed out at Credlin now it would look like sour grapes. If Samantha Maiden rang him to break his silence, he'd laugh at her. There will come a time when Turnbull goes Credlin, and he will choose phrasing of Aesculapian skill I'm sure - but now's not the time.

People are looking to Julie Bishop as the key figure in what happens next with Credlin and Abbott, but she's a showpony. The one to watch is Chris Pyne. Pyne has served six Liberal leaders and been disloyal to them all. He (and Entsch) will be the difference between whether the backbench gets behind Abbott or deserts him. Pyne is who and what he is and doesn't care what others think of him - if asbestos had a personality it would be his. Samantha Maiden, bless her, has missed that too.

When you're stuck between the hard place of public hostility and the rock that is the Prime Minister's current Chief of Staff (as Coalition MPs are), you're in the wrong place. Where do you turn? East Germans or Zimbabweans might turn on the people, but we still have a vestige of democratic sentiment in this country. Abbott alone, not one member of the Coalition parliamentary representation owes their position to Credlin - and even he'd survive without her. He was best man at Peter Slipper's wedding. Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by being sentimental.

The first Liberal who is confronted with their metadata by Credlin and Abbott from the intelligence services, and accused of 'treason' for leaking to journalists, will be in an interesting position.

Every misjudgment of this government, down to and including their Senate negotiating strategy ("There is only one plan! This is the plan! What do you mean, no?"), is Credlin's. The successes (give me a minute) have been squirreled away by others. Credlin is not suddenly going to develop a whole new policy response. She's going to keep screeching at people until they shut up - or don't.

Everyone's happy to go along with a winning strategy but few will stick by those who are out of options, ideas, and time. If the Peta Credlin of five years ago was working for today's Peta Credlin, she would be polishing her resume and calling up long-neglected contacts. Credlin isn't stupid, she knows it's over. All that remains (in no particular order) is to set the stage, wrong-foot the press gallery, and break it to Tony.


  1. Are you saying that Entsch is the whip? He's not since the election. Ruddock is the Whip - that's why Entsch complained to him.

  2. Fascinating insights as usual Andrew. You have offered a compelling prosecution of Credlin.

    I do not believe that Credlin should be the sole person to stand in the shadow of the finger of blame. I do not think you hold that view either.

    That said there seem to be people in the Liberal Party who want to Ditch the Witch. It seems all their unhappiness has been directed at Credlin when only short months ago her 'controlling' nature was being hailed as motoring a 'disciplined' office which delivered victory.

    On past experience Abbott will not let a Credlin stand between him and the Top Job. Odds on she will go and another, more subtle controller will be put in charge, a man who does not wear ocelot.

    What I find extraordinary about this whole thing is that Abbott's own team are saying that he has allowed himself to be the puppet of an unelected woman: that, in effect Peta Credlin runs the show.

    Thanks for reminding me that Entsch is a Whip. I had quite forgotten that. That certainly gives more weight to his criticisms of Credlin.

  3. Now here is a thought ....
    Further to what I have written above about Credlin and the-finger-of-blame, is it at all possible that without her Abbott may have been in greater strife even earlier?
    Of one thing I am a smidge away from declaring Absolutely Certain is that she must be responsible for those hideous blue ties.
    The particular grey-blue issue drains colour from pinched faces and life from personality. That colour bleats conformity, lack of imagination and creativity and independent thought. It makes me yawn. Ah! What if she had put them all in ocelot?

  4. Samantha maiden15/12/14 7:33 am

    That's gold Andrew. A massive rant about how dumb everyone is and you don't know who the whip is. This is so good. I will let you in on a secret. We published the story because we thought it was significant too. Also I do "have Ruddock's number" - because he's quoted in the story online. Keep em coming !

    1. Entsch knows what it is to be Whip, and Ruddock is the Whip, and - yeah, I could have expressed that better. But then again, you wouldn't be a Murdoch employee if you weren't thin-skinned and looking for your next gotcha.

      It was a genuine pity that nobody (including yourself) followed up your story on Hockey pocketing an allowance for renting a Canberra flat owned by his wife. In the UK we saw a similar story run and run and transform the political landscape, in a way that your usual transcription-style never does or can.

      Re your final sentence. If only you had a large and engaged readership you wouldn't need to trawl through blogs looking for validation. You'd need to be consistently better at your job to get that, and maybe even shift employers for credibility's sake.

  5. I'll just pop a bottle of that lovely just-desserts-wine Schadenfreude in the fridge.

  6. As much as "social position" has it's many aspirers, so too has "political position"..and in both cases, "Riding in the Rolls" is the sought after photo-op...Riding in a Roll-Royce is good..is great!..but if it breaks down, there will be very few volunteers of those passengers who will help "push the car" !

  7. Best bloody dissection of the LNP entrails yet, Andrew. What do you think of the idea that Ms Fluffy will do a deal with Robb whilst in Lima?

    1. Why Robb? How many votes does he have?

  8. Yeah, you've really ruined my daily Age reading, now I just cut straight to the letters. I don't even bother with the articles, I go straight to the comments to see what outrageous denialism that paid wanker, Hacka is indulging in today.


  9. This is all very challenging. Clearly, Peta Credlin has ruffled some feathers in her transition from opposition leader COS to the PM's. I'm not sure it's her fault but she may be the only one who can solve it. The PM's sexism defence failed the irony test, but that doesn't mean that sexism wasn't in play. Peta can't be sacked without it looking as if the PMO has lost the plot (and in the process the PM). And it's hard to imagine a way that she can retire to a Sinodinos-like anonymity in the PMO.

    The ALP is good at protecting insiders (and Credlin is clearly a Liberal insider). It is inconceivable that the ALP would dump someone in her position. What they would do is realise that her current position is untenable and create a way out. She needs to be the one that says she needs to go and the Party needs to facilitate that. She can move on without damaging the Parry, but if the Party insists on boning her on the way out, why would she.

    The bigger question is what difference would this make to the Liberal Party and the Government. My guess is not much. For all that they might argue otherwise, it's the policy failure that's the issue not the PMO performance.

    Mike Carey (not the ABC guy)

    1. You seem to imply there's a difference.

  10. Off topic, but I would like to thank you , Andrew, for your efforts, in writing your thoughtful and informative blogs. I really appreciate your efforts.

  11. The problem is that they have made this behind the scenes leopard skin wearing staffer a household name .The peasantry like myself couldn't tell you the name of any other political chief of staff that ever existed until there was Peta Credlin ,hell we didn't even know what a chief of staff was .
    So just like the theory that the reason Hockey hasn't been sacked is because it would be a really bad look for this control freak government a messy admission of failure , I think the same applies in some way to Credlin , oh they will get rid of her eventually , she wont have a job after the next election , If they get rid of her now it will be seen almost like a minister being sent to the back bench it will reek of disunity , her position has been elevated so much by the media it would be impossible for her to have a clean departure. Abbott tries to save his own neck by playing "we don't want to make the same mistakes as labor " card .
    They just cant bear the idea that they are human , that they may be like the rest of us and occasionally argue with their wives.Well it is the liberal party ( and the only woman in cabinet is not married) please don't call me a sexist T-O-N-I !
    I'm not sure what will happen when she goes , that's the interesting part not that's shes departing , what will happen to Abbott afterwards. Yeah..

  12. [QUOTE] That said there seem to be people in the Liberal Party who want to Ditch the Witch.

    I thought there had been pretty exhaustive discussion in the Australian blogosphere/commentariat as to why that kind of language is just unacceptable no matter whether you agree with a person's policies or not.

  13. [QUOTE] I'll just pop a bottle of that lovely just-desserts-wine Schadenfreude in the fridge.[/QUOTE]

    The one that's served cold? :D