Peta Credlin has become a lightning rod for discontent driven by fear

January 28, 2015

By Tom Bentley

The Coalition’s rising internal anxiety is spilling out into direct criticism of the prime minister, Tony Abbott, and targeted attacks on his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

This week, the summer crescendo reached a point where he had to address the criticisms head-on, signalling that he had learned his lesson. He sought to avoid direct discussion of Credlin and her role.

Compared to his chivalrous pre-Christmas defence of his chief of staff, in which he pointed out the sexism of attacking her for being hard-nosed and directive, this was quite revealing. Perhaps it can be explained by the extraordinary intervention by Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that Credlin ‘must do her patriotic duty and resign’.

Credlin has become a lightning rod for discontent driven by fear – fear, above all, that the Coalition might actually lose the 2016 election. She is also being punished for widespread resentment of her influence over the prime minister and her approach to political management.

Much of this criticism is sexist and hypocritical. Abbott was correct in pointing this out last year. Now, he has apparently realised that to respond further would prolong the discussion in a way that will further damage him. To be forced to mount a public defence of your political staff is to demonstrate just how much the organisational arrangements are not working for you. To decline to comment at all is either a sign of strength, or a sign of deep unease.

The way that Peta Credlin does her job has certainly invited controversy and criticism. Her “take no prisoners” approach to political combat and her determination to control every possible detail of presentation, organisation and personnel are bound up with Abbott’s current problems. And her gender prompts criticism that is gratuitously sexist, including from those members of parliament who chafe at her decisions and their lack of access to the Prime Minister.

However, to blame Credlin for the Prince Philip debacle is to confuse symptoms with causes. The decision to award him the knighthood was a rare kind of political decision – one over which the prime minister exercises complete discretion, is planned long in advance, and for which there was ample opportunity for explanations. It also reflects Abbott’s personal priorities, as a staunch monarchist.

The critics now say that Credlin should have saved Abbott from himself by spotting the risk of public backlash. She should have steered the prime minister onto a different course, they argue. But most politicians know that they carry responsibility for their own decisions. Most staff know that, if an office holder is really convinced or excited by a particular decision, it is hard to dissuade them. If the responsibility is not Abbott’s in this case, then I don’t know what decision would be. Insisting that he bears it alone was the only thing Abbott could do.

Those attacking Credlin either sniff an opportunity to advance their own interests, or sense that in some way her inseparability from Abbott is a danger to the wider project of the Coalition government.

Attacking political staff through the media is certainly common practice. Barack Obama’s inner circle are routinely criticised for being insular, detached from the interests with which the president must deal, and arrogant. The staff of Ed Miliband, Britain’s Labour leader, frequently bear criticism for his perceived failings, despite working 18 hour days and keeping their boss a nose ahead in the opinion polls for months at a time. In Australia, senior political staff do much the same while also spending large amounts of time in Canberra and travelling constantly during non-sitting weeks.

This frequently demands the impossible. They must seek to advance their employers’ careers and agendas, work collegially and loyally for their wider party organisation, and feed the insatiable demands of the media – all while managing relationships with bureaucracy, interest groups and policy experts.

In opposition, staff have to develop policy, including fiscal costings, with minimal organisational resources. In government, they have to drink from a fire hydrant of bureaucratic briefing, trying to secure and communicate policy outcomes while working with a public service that naturally wants to compete for the attention of ministers. Many of the vaunted advisers of old, while deserving respect, would not last more than a day or two amidst the pace and pressure of today’s politics.

Why would anyone do the job? The answer is a mix of loyalty and ambition. Political staff work offers the chance to be up close – to learn from, and sometimes to influence the workings of political, media and bureaucratic power. What to do with that influence is, above all, an ethical question.

In this environment, Credlin’s mistake has been to concentrate too much decision-making power in her own and Abbott’s hands. In reality, the relentless pace and burgeoning complexity of government decision-making mean that trying to make yourself pivotal to every decision is untenable.

The best senior staff are discreet, disciplined, hard-working, collaborative and almost invisible. They know how to structure, negotiate and enforce difficult decisions, while at the same time acting to preserve discretion and authority among the elected politicians for whom they work.

The only way to do this is to build a network of relationships, and the chiefs of staff who are now lauded are those who could gather feedback and intelligence swiftly, mobilise support and expertise with ease, and navigate conflicting pressures smoothly. Given the turbulence and immediacy of politics today, the only way to endure and succeed is to build great teams and trusted relationships.

This is the opposite of the approach that Credlin – and Abbott – have taken.

Their error is to assume that command and control is the superior method of organisation in all cases. Credlin’s unblinking determination to maintain this approach in all circumstances has deepened the frustration of government MPs, while concentrating pressure and responsibility around her. The backlog and overload of paperwork in the prime minister’s office, and recent efforts to bring in communications experts with a broader perspective, confirm the problem.

Abbott also confused symptom and cause more broadly in his approach to winning office. He sought to blame Labor and its leadership for a sense of public uncertainty and resentment that he was, in fact, deliberately helping to stoke.

Abbott mistakenly believed that, once in office, he could use the resources of government to support a narrative that would satisfy an anxious public and provide a structure through which to attack and destroy his ideological enemies: trade unions, the ABC, public sector health and education systems, the institutional defenders of human rights and equality, and so on. Both of these tasks have proved more difficult than he expected, and his skills of persuasion, coordinated by Credlin, have been found wanting.

The flailing around is, in fact, symptomatic of two much deeper problems.

First, the government does not have a program or a plan with which to address the complex, uncertain circumstances faced by Australia at home and abroad. Combining aggressive economic deregulation with authoritarian traditionalism, as Abbott has tried to do, has already been clearly rejected by the public.

Second, Abbott and the coalition do not have a reservoir of trust and loyalty on which to draw, because their model of leadership – to win public popularity by attacking and destroying its ideological enemies – also destroys trust. This approach began to fall apart with the public reaction to the 2014 budget.

A government desperately searching for a coherent direction that the public might support, a party room increasingly frantic about its prospects next year, and a media with little sympathy and not much alternative explanation about what is happening in Australia: in these circumstances simply replacing Credlin and trying to install a new face would likely fracture the operation of the government, embolden internal critics, and leave the prime minister’s office with a genuinely impossible task. In other words, it would accelerate the unravelling of this government.

In any case, Abbott and Credlin are joined at the hip. The fact that this is the focus of debate and speculation, before Abbott has even expressed his new year “narrative”, is a sign of just how far off track this government has got itself. The spite and hubris with which right wing commentators are now attacking the prime minister’s chief of staff suggests that they know that too.