Former Peter Costello staffer, political commentator, veteran Canberra journalist Nikki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin, How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government is a carefully substantiated examination of the disastrous consequences of Tony Abbott’s surrender of his Prime Ministerial authority to his political dominatrix, his high-handed Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.
By patiently interviewing an abundance of MPs, former staff, friends and other key players who were keen to place themselves on record, Savva documents Abbott’s abdication. He was a Prime Minister who gave up power the moment he won office. Failing to set up the right structures, personnel or processes to run a government he left it all to Peta.
Lacking any real qualification or personal attribute to be a Prime Minister, Abbott allowed his power-hungry, megalomaniacal adviser to do his job for him. It was an arrangement that suited both of them nearly two years.
After his first leadership spill where 39 MPs preferred an empty chair to their current PM; the his ‘near-death experience’ Simpkins and Randall, told Abbott MPs hated Credlin. She had to go. “Ah, mate, I can’t go there”, he replied.
Abbott indulged Credlin’s power tripping, tantrums, abuse of staff and due process at the expense of everything else, party, people and ultimately his own prime ministership. He ignored all warnings. He sided with her.
Victims of a Credlin tongue-lashing who complained ended up apologising to Peta who had to be appeased at all cost. Or simply left like Fiona Telford, after learning she was a ‘fucking useless bitch .. You don’t fucking know anything.’
Aided and abetted by a weak, inept boss whose co-dependency she nurtured, Credlin’s abuse of her position proved boundless. She even came to announce policy positions off her own bat, having bypassed such non-entities as press secretaries or prime ministers. She had the power of life and death, over staffers’ careers and aspired to the same with government ministers. Credlin ‘s Prime Minister’s Office became her court. You kept favour to keep your job.
Of course political disasters are never so simple. Savva is too much a creature of the right herself to allow that bad policies played a role in Abbott’s downfall, too. Savva may be brilliantly attuned to individuals within the Liberal machine but she is tone deaf to is slavish adherence to IPA inspired neo-con policy which sought to punish the poor that the wealthy might enjoy further tax cuts or the policy dictated by big business, especially mining and coal-powered energy. None of these helped Abbott’s record unpopularity with voters.
Nor did Abbott’s ministry exactly distinguish itself by its capability, but, apart from agreeing that Joe had to go, Savva is too blinkered by her Liberal affiliations to allow that other underperforming Liberal politicians such as Christopher Pyne and his botched Higher Education reforms helped Abbott undo his government.
Pro-Liberal bias aside, however, Savva makes a major contribution to Liberal political history at a time when no-one else is prepared to tell the truth. Is the rest of the Canberra press gallery too busy serving the interests of its media proprietors? Savva has the courage and the sources to create a powerful and damning critique of Abbott and his Chief of staff which helps explain the disastrous aberration in national politics that was the Abbott petticoat government.
For her pains, Savva has copped a lot of flak from those whose interests she attacks even if much of the attack is cheap, or wilfully misreads and misrepresents her work. One such howl from the affronted or hurt by the truth on the right is that the book is unsourced, salacious scuttlebutt. It is not.
On the contrary, Savva’s capacity to include first hand testimony, often of the lowly staffers, is one of her book’s strengths. When “megalomania kicked in”, we hear that impression first-hand. When Abbott canvasses Warren Entsch’s support we hear him tell his PM that he was “as opposition leader, he was a bloody disaster.”
Liberal MP Alex Somlyay tells Abbott that “goal kickers not head kickers” win games. “Yeah, mate, but I love kicking heads,” Abbott replies. Therein, Savva notes, lay the problem.
Protecting her sources meant that Savva could not consult Abbott or Credlin. Both complain loudly now. It is a disingenuous slur on her objectivity. What they mean is clear. Heads could have been kicked. Moreover, neither the former PM nor his former chief of staff lack access to the media. Credlin cultivated reporters.
Abbott ignored his colleagues, his party and its representative processes while abrogating power to his own office. Yet Credlin’s power trip went further. Within the PM’s office there was no division of responsibilities, there was a takeover.
Political advisers, policy advisers, administrative staff, decorators, even menu-planners saw Credlin take over. Then she took over the press secretaries’ jobs, too. Cabinet ministers had no access; their calls or emails to the PM’s office were ignored. Not only did it cause MPs’ resentment, it crippled government.
Credlin’s megalomania was as self-destructive as it was limitless. Abuse of a representative system to one side, her centralised chokehold on everything created an impossible workload; a command and control centre where nothing got done. Workflow slowed to glacial. Policy papers languished weeks in her in tray while she pored over plans for decorating The Lodge or seating plans at a dinner function.
Abbott and Credlin appear as a co-dependent pair of pathological liars and bullies trapped in a “Beelzebub’s bubble” of delusions of grandeur and lies. Their bubble remains un-pricked. Far from disgraced by Savva’s revelations, the pair today maintain they were betrayed by Bishop and Morrison. They were on the right path. Their record stands. Their colleagues’ report, however, attests to a deep-seated corruption.
Along with Abbott’s wilful self-deception and fatal isolation from reality a rottenness was at his government’s core; a repudiation of its contract to act in good faith on behalf of the Australian people. Lies were its currency du jour while relationships degenerated into petty power plays based often on little more than petty jealousy or raging paranoia.
A rampant, mutual mistrust led to further double dealing and deceit to disempower rivals and to neutralise all threats. Credlin’s PMO would cynically and wilfully mislead outsiders. Julie Bishop was leaked against as were others perceived as rivals. Turnbull was set up to appear weak on defence. Canberra veteran, Laurie Oakes supports Savva who reports:
“I would check things with Abbott’s office and be misled. One press officer even boasted openly about fooling members of the press gallery.”
Telling truth to power is never easy. The forces supporting conservative politics in Australia are legion. Savva has been howled down by many on the right as peddling unsourced hearsay, idle gossip or muck-raking or sexist. Abbott’s publisher Louise Adler calls it a “self-serving revenge tale”.
The Road to Ruin is none of these things. For those who would simply read it, Savva is attempting to put the record straight. Her use of reputable primary sources sustains a compelling narrative and analysis albeit from a conservative perspective.
Abbott’s Liberal Party coalition came to power quite unprepared and unfit for the job. Elected less on policy than because they were not Labor, but with the noose of Abbott’s rash promise of “no cuts” like a noose over them, the Liberals in government were headed by a PM unable to move much beyond his sloganeering of opposition. He and Credlin retreated into their bubble determined to divide and conquer. In eighteen months it all fell apart. 39 MPs voted against him. Abbott promised changes he could never make. Good government, he said. Six months later, he was gone.
Good government required a leader who was informed, responsive to events, a PM who had a clear policy agenda and who took and sought advice from his colleagues. Instead, Abbott withdrew into his Chief of staff’s cocoon, engaged by little beyond flag-festooned national security scare campaigns, publicity stunts and stitching up his enemies. Prince Phillip’s knighthood and his other disastrous “captain’s calls” showed a costly bad judgement for which Savva suggests, he may not be solely to blame.
MPs quickly came to see they were not heeded and resented it. Above all Abbott’s other limitations, his lack of interest in economics, his impatience with detail, his tendency to shoot from the lip, his inept bungling of even minor issues as same sex marriage policy was his failure to heed good advice.
The Road to Ruin shows Abbott’s utter dependence on his adviser. Credlin encouraged him to believe she was indispensable. She exploited her position to control him. She openly declared he could not function without her. He seems to have believed her. The delusion betrayed them both.
Savva details how Peta Credlin’s abrasive, controlling personality and her domination of Abbott led her to assert a stranglehold over communications and vital decision-making in the PMO. Rather than protect him, as she claims, however, his Chief of Staff’s intervention exposed Tony Abbott to criticism, complaint even ridicule.
The command and control centralisation rankled. Some called the PM’s office The Kremlin. Even the Foreign Minister’s travel plans had to wait on his office’s approval, approval often delayed. Credlin also alienated Abbott’s colleagues, by treating them to displays of withering contempt.
Credlin summoned MPs after a bad day in parliament to rebuke them “why am I the only fucking person who can get things done around here?” It was a favourite Credlin theme. Savva details a dysfunctional PMO, which Credlin made into a toxic workplace in which staff were not only subject to unreasonable demands but who suffered terrible bullying.
Credlin sweated the small stuff because she was overwhelmed by the big. Yet she could monster others for their perceived failings. She was keen to eliminate female rivals including Abbott’s wife, Margie. “If you get any requests for briefings for Margie’s ladies’ lunches, it’s not going to happen,” she told a staffer, furious that Margie had been briefed on the entitlements and expectations of a PM’s wife. Credlin expressly forbade this. Why?
And where was Margie’s husband, Tony, when Credlin created this purdah for his wife? Complicit? Overruled? It seems he abdicated early as a PM and as a husband and father. His Jesuitical justification of his passivity only digs him in deeper. Policy-makers, such as himself were a breed apart, whose family duties were, he said: “Less to be role models as spouses and parents than to build the best possible conditions for families to flourish.”
When he needed to stand up for himself against Credlin, Abbott capitulated. But he had excuses. As the father of three daughters, he explained to staffer James Boyce, a bloke is wise to back off from an irrational female.
“He always found it was best not to fight back … better to accept what they were saying, apologise, then deal with the issue when things were calmer.”
Margie Abbott was regularly excluded from her own show; events which were her prerogative, as the Prime Minister’s wife, to attend. MPs out of favour were undermined; leaked against and manipulated. So detailed were the leaks of her profligate expenses that Bronwyn Bishop says she knows they could only have come from one place.
Bishop continued believing that she had Tony Abbott’s support up until one hour before he announced her resignation. Media were briefed that once again, Abbott had ignored Credlin’s advice. Savva notes ironically that it is “funny that at the scene of every disaster it was made known that the chief of staff had nothing to do with it”.
MPs such as Greg Hunt who contested her will were subject to screaming matches. Hunt prevented her effective veto of the Climate Change Authority by standing his ground and citing the Westminster system to claim his authority as a government minister superior to any chief of staff. Many, however, like adviser Jane Macmillan, were forced to leave, their careers in ruins, their confidence in tatters. The Credlin who boasted openly that Abbott could not do his job without her, helped drive a lot of female staffers to resign.
Much has been made of Credlin’s Svengali-like skill at moulding minding Abbott into an election winner and not all of it by Credlin herself. In a reverse take on Pygmalion, Abbott became a statue in a successful if robotic policy-free, scare-mongering election campaign. Abbott was OK if he could be made to stick to his script, a step he forgot in his SBS interview on the eve of electoral victory in which he wildly declared no cuts to anything.
Abbott’s SBS declaration undid his credibility and ruined any later chances of success as he struggled ineptly to cut government expenditure in line with his dry, IPA economic agenda. Savva provides a clear case that most of the fatal errors in his government were committed in the first few weeks of office.
A loose cannon took charge of another loose cannon, in an erratic petty tyranny which exalted the power of the Prime Minister’s Office at the expense of effective, representative, policy-based government. Along with countless accounts of Credlin bullying MPs, Savva’s story records shocking examples of the PM’s capitulation to his advisor while she consistently over-reached her authority. Who was running the country?
By 27 November 2014, Credlin is able to inform the media that the GP co-payment is dead before even telling Abbott let alone any of his policy advisors. Abbott’s code for this was ‘an unauthorised briefing’ which was “code for a complete cock-up” by his office beginning with his chief of staff. The PMO tail was wagging the junkyard dog.
In abrogating power to her office, moreover, Abbott and Credlin created a type of paralysis in which decisions were delayed or made without due consideration. It was a recipe for disaster which still haunts Liberal proceedings. Old habits die hard.
The Road to Ruin is a complex and alarming story of a Prime Minister who surrenders his authority to his erratic chief advisor while defending her from all criticism and appeasing her will on key decisions, a perverse loyalty and protectiveness which confounds and alienates his colleagues. It raises profound questions about Abbott’s capacity to assert his personal authority let alone exercise any effective Prime Ministerial leadership.
MPs found access to their PM blocked by his controlling Chief of Staff. Even writing Abbott a note was forbidden. All “paper”, an early Credlin directive states, must come to the PMO and not to the PM himself.
The more the flow was channelled into her office, however, the less she could deal with. MPs found their submissions ignored, delayed or summarily rejected.
Credlin’s obsession with petty detail at the expense of policy or any bigger picture, her temperamental outbursts are attested to by a series of political figures who witnessed or who suffered her tongue-lashing and cruel power plays.
The Road to Ruin is a compelling but disturbing portrait of a Prime Minister’s Office which usurped its advisory role. Abbott encouraged his office to assume executive responsibilities and powers well beyond its proper role or its administrative capacity. It was a fatal over-reach, just as Abbott himself on being elected by accident and against all expectations Prime Minister quickly found himself imprisoned in a role vastly beyond his capabilities.
Beyond Savva’s portrait of a pathological PM’s Office, however, lies a Liberal Party in crisis. It has its rich and powerful friends in business and in the media who give it every advantage in gaining office. When it gains power, however, it is overwhelmed by its opportunities.
Abbott’s way of coping with a job well beyond him was to retreat into a type of centralised autocratic command centre and try to bluff his way through which did nothing to resolve any of the complexities of negotiating the competing demands and managing the conflicting interests that lie at the heart of any successful representative government.
His evasion of responsible leadership has not helped the Liberals develop adequate responses to challenging circumstances, including an economy which is stalling in a world which appears headed for recession. Yet he, alone is not to blame. To read Road to Ruin as a scapegoating of Abbott and Credlin to boost the glorious triumph of Turnbull is to mistake symptom and cause.
The ill-fated two years of the Credlin captivity are but one symptom of a greater malaise in Liberal politics which finds itself now seeking re-election with neither policy nor past success to commend it. Pinning hopes on a presidential Turnbull, a PM who has yet to show he can organise a cup of tea would be to merely repeat and compound the Abbott error.