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Abbott and Credlin: mutually assured destruction


Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin were both fierce political warriors but didn’t know how to deal with the ultimate prize, writes Susan Mitchell, in this reflection on her own book about Abbott, and a new expose of the pair’s relationship in government.

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In the latest book on Tony Abbott, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government, Niki Savva meticulously documents how and why Abbott was voted out of office by his own colleagues before he could contest the next election.

What is most surprising to her is why Abbott allowed Peta Credlin to exert so much power over him. Why, she asks, when all of his closest friends and supporters told him to get rid of her, did he refuse to listen? Some believed it was because he was having an affair with her (an allegation strongly denied this week by Credlin), others that he had just become emotionally co-dependent, most were simply baffled. Savva describes their relationship as simply “weird.”

So whose fault was it?

In 2011, after Tony Abbott had lost the 2010 election by a whisker, I wrote a book about Abbott asking the voters of Australia to look at the accumulated evidence of this man’s career and character before voting for him at the next election.  My belief is that democracy works best when we know who and what we are voting for, and we have a right to know as much as we can about someone who has such a burning ambition to lead our nation.  Based on detailed evidence and analysis, I argued that as a future Prime Minister he posed an unacceptable threat to his own party and the nation. He was, I believe, a dangerous choice.

The signs were all there from the beginning. The flaws were and are still there.

From an early age, young Tony was told by his parents that he was destined for great things. When a priest asked his mother what Abbott would do with his life, she replied, quite seriously: ”He’ll either be the pope or prime minister.” Even when he carved his name into the duco of cars parked in the street, one of his frequent misdeeds, his parents’ attitude was one of “boys will be boys”.  His mother was very upset when after a parents’ meeting, she reported to his father that some of the teachers found his behaviour to be attention-seeking and disruptive. His father simply told him that he was brighter than the Jesuits who were teaching him, so he shouldn’t be in a hurry to show how smart he was.

From his teenaged years, Abbott had a fixed black and white view of the world. His  values were those of much older conservative and religious male leaders. His university results were unremarkable. He was more concerned that he never managed to make the A  grade rugby team, rather than academic results. His main pursuit and passion was fighting the emergence of feminists and gay liberationists on the student council.

Abbott believed he could not continue in the job without her. And she reinforced that belief. It was probably true.

His hero and mentor was the crusading conservative Catholic B.A. Santamaria whose favourite political tactic against the evil forces of the Left was to create a climate of fear and terror by the use of inflated rhetoric. Abbott loved the aggression with which Santamaria had smashed the power of the communists, whom he believed were infiltrating the trade unions in the 1950s. Abbott  saw himself as the student crusader battling against the left wing of the Australian Union of Students.

Aggression was his favourite political weapon in his attempts to smash the  left and feminist forces. In 1979, when he finally became the president of the SRC  he promised to replace the Che Guevara posters with a portrait of the Queen. (Once he was PM he reintroduced knights and dames, infamously making the Queen’s husband a Knight of Australia.) He was, and still is, a man out of his time and place – a throwback to the 1950s.

Still unsure of whether to choose the goal of PM or Pope, Abbott’s Riverview teacher and mentor Father Emmett Costello, a friend of his family and a wealthy and highly connected Sydney power broker, encouraged him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. Even though his academic record was far from outstanding, his sports record never outstanding, his university leadership a cause of conflict and aggression, he was soon off to Oxford. Apart from gaining a Blue for boxing, he only managed a  third in his Arts degree, his assessor commenting on his lack of “philosophic doubt”. His black and white view of the world never changed. Even Father Emmett warned him about it.

Back in Australia, he took the religious option and entered St Patrick’s Catholic Seminary in Manly. Once again, he was intolerant of those who disagreed with him and his overbearing manner and loud personality alienated many of his fellow seminarians. He took up a warrior approach against his critics who stressed ‘empathy’ with sinners and ‘dialogue’ with the enemies of the church. Having decided that a celibate and pastoral life was not for him, he left in 1987.

At the age of nearly 30, he was a warrior without a war. Having failed at the Pope option, he turned towards Prime Minister as his destiny. John Howard became his next mentor and supporter.  Abbott spent a few years at journalism, also arranged by an older mentor and editor of The Australian David Armstrong, before Howard arranged for him to become press secretary to John Hewson. This was , however, a disaster because  Abbott wanted to write speeches about the monarchy and Hewson could not focus him on economics. The subject had bored him at university and it still did. Abbott loved the political battle more than policy discussion. Eventually Hewson sacked him because he believed he was leaking to Howard who used it to undermine him as leader of the party.

Howard came to his rescue with the job of director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Abbott put on his crusaders’ cape and took up arms against the Republican push of Keating and Turnbull. In 1994, Howard opened the door to him for preselection for the Liberal seat of Warringah on Sydney’s conservative north shore. Howard’s  main argument for choosing him over much better known candidates were his exceptional skills of persuasion and his fighting spirit; both of which he convinced them the party lacked.

In March 1994, John Howard handed out how to vote cards for him. Having won the seat he told the media he would be “a junkyard dog – savaging the other side”. He kept his promise.

John Howard (left) with Tony Abbott in 2006. Photo: AAP/Alan Porritt

John Howard (left) with Tony Abbott in 2006. Photo: AAP/Alan Porritt

In 2009 when he won the ballot for Opposition Leader, by one vote, from Malcolm Turnbull,  he knew he had to change some of his previously erratic behaviour, be more disciplined and stay on course for the big prize.

Peta Credlin had been sidelined when Malcolm Turnbull became Opposition leader and she often cried on the shoulders of colleagues about the stalled state of her political career. She was a powerful, determined, politically ambitious woman and when Tony Abbott appointed her his chief of staff after defeating Turnbull, she knew this was also her big chance.

Savva says that the tenor of their working relationship was set early. “She accompanied him almost everywhere. Normally chiefs of staff stayed back in the office, ensuring that policy formulation was proceeding. Political and press staff usually formed the travel corps. The reason, according to one former senior staffer, was simple. She did not trust him out on his own. Nor could anybody else be trusted to make sure he stayed disciplined and on message. She churned through staff and totally restructured the office to ensure that she had total control over every aspect of his life.” Savva lists a litany of anecdotes and incidents  by former staffers about Credlin’s obsessive tactics to maintain control. She simply made herself indispensable to him.

“She would do his make-up, fix his hair, feed him food off her plate, let him sip wine out of her glass, bake him biscuits (especially if another female staffer had made some for him, too), then stand where she could eye-ball him as he performed. He would look to her for approval , so he would know when he was doing as required or not.”

Even Savva concedes that keeping him in check certainly helped deliver government. Credlin and Abbott had a lot in common, apart from their religion. He relied on her to the exclusion of everyone else. Many witnesses heard her yelling at him that without her he never would have made it and that he would be nothing without her. He clearly believed it. The question is why?

A knowledge of his life before becoming PM reveals a man who got where he was going by persuading powerful people, usually men, to back him. He had never really held down a proper job before he entered politics. He was very good at flying by the seat of his pants. Once his destiny was within his grasp, he knew he needed help. Everyone knew that he had a problem with women voters. Here was a tall, attractive, powerful woman who was prepared to totally devote all her energy and skills to making him the Prime Minister. She was always by his side. All of her time, day and night, was devoted to helping him. Like him, she was a black and white thinker. Enemies were to be destroyed. Like him she was a fighter and a warrior.

On the night of his victory speech in 2013, her singled her out for special praise. “Peta Credlin is the smartest and fiercest political warrior I have ever worked with.” He continued to repeat this to anyone who would listen. However, what works in Opposition is not appropriate for government. Their problem was, it was the only game they knew.  Anyone who disagreed with them or questioned their decisions was an enemy.

Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin

Throughout Abbott’s Prime Ministership, Credlin’s control over him strengthened to a stranglehold.  Whenever his ministers or his backbenchers or even John Howard advised him to ask her to resign or sack her, he refused to listen to them. As Savva said, it was as if they existed in “a bubble built for two”. Abbott believed he could not continue in the job without her. And she reinforced that belief. It was probably true.

Psychologists know it as the “Stockholm Syndrome”, where a captive firmly believes that the relationship with a captor is desperately needed for his survival.

Savva concludes that “Abbott and Credlin had played it harder and rougher than anybody else to get where they wanted to be. But they proved incapable of managing their own office, much less the government. Then, when it was over, when it was crystal clear to everyone they had failed, when everyone else could see why they had failed, she played the gender card while he played the victim, accusing Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison of treachery.”

All Abbott ever wanted was the prize. And when he got it he didn’t know what to do with it. It gives me no pleasure to say to all those people who believed in him, “I told you so.”  His years in government were very damaging to our nation.

As Shakespeare wrote in that brilliant political play Julius Caesar:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

“But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Susan Mitchell is an Adelaide writer. Her book Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man  is published by Scribe.

Niki Savva’s book, Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed their own Government, is also published by Scribe.

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