Ab­bott’s bat­tle­ground smoul­ders on

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

This hastily put-to­gether book is un­am­bigu­ously fo­cused on the fail­ure of lead­er­ship of the 28th prime min­is­ter. It re­lies heav­ily on anony­mous sources. How­ever, it is worth point­ing out that Tony Ab­bott and his chief of staff Peta Credlin both re­fused to be in­ter­viewed by au­thors Wayne Er­ring­ton and Peter van Onselen.

The ti­tle has echoes of Ab­bott’s 2009 mem­oir Bat­tle­lines, also pub­lished by Mel­bourne Univer­sity Press. In­trigu­ingly, Ab­bott’s book was pub­lished while he was a Lib­eral Party back­bencher and Mal­colm Turn­bull was op­po­si­tion leader.

In Bat­tle­ground the in­tel­lec­tual un­der­pin- nings of the al­le­ga­tions made about Ab­bott are some­times less than brave. The au­thors not only do not at­tribute by name many of Ab­bott’s tren­chant crit­ics but it seems they haven’t sought the views of politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal staffers with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to their own.

In their ac­knowl­edg­ments Er­ring­ton and van Onselen write that they “in­ter­viewed dozens of MPs and staffers … many of whom wish to re­main anony­mous”. They of­fer “spe­cial thanks to those who pro­vided quotes and helped us with be­hind-the-scenes de­tails”.

The re­al­ity is the au­thors have har­vested nu­mer­ous anti-Ab­bott sto­ries from peo­ple who were plot­ting against him. More­over, lit­tle is said and few are quoted in de­fence of Ab­bott as prime min­is­ter.

To be fair, Er­ring­ton and van Onselen write: “When his­to­ri­ans search for Aus­tralia’s best ever op­po­si­tion leader, on ei­ther side of the ma­jor party di­vide, they may well set­tle on Ab­bott.”

And if this book is to be be­lieved, Ab­bott is not the bru­tal at­tack dog and misog­y­nist (as claimed by La­bor pre-elec­tion) but a wimp, largely con­trolled by his chief of staff.

In fact, much of the ma­te­rial that forms the core of this book of­ten tells us far more about jour­nal­is­tic and min­is­te­rial ad­vo­cacy than it does about the for­mer prime min­is­ter.

In par­tic­u­lar Ab­bott is pil­lo­ried for his loy­alty to Credlin and his trea­surer Joe Hockey. If only he’d dumped them, the ar­gu­ment runs, he might have sur­vived. But re­mov­ing Hockey as trea­surer would have been proof of fail­ure, es­pe­cially as he and Ab­bott were co-au­thors of the 2014 bud­get. Dump­ing his chief of staff would have been ab­so­lute proof of the dys­func­tion of the PM’s of­fice.

The idea that Turn­bull would have been con­tent to re­main a min­is­ter if only Hockey and Credlin had de­parted is hard to be­lieve. As Ab­bott has said pub­licly, Turn­bull “didn’t stay in the par­lia­ment to be some­one else’s min­is­ter”. Turn­bull didn’t want to be trea­surer; he wanted to be prime min­is­ter. Making him trea­surer, as many urged Ab­bott to do, would have given the chal­lenger even more op­por­tu­nity for el­e­gant mis­chief-making.

There was a time when jour­nal­ists and other writ­ers were taught not to re­port claims to which in­for­mants were not pre­pared to put their names, with­out at least one cor­rob­o­rat­ing source. Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard cer­tainly were early vic­tims of ad­vo­cacy jour­nal­ism, but as this book re­veals, it be­came much more in­tense in the cam­paign to un­der­mine Ab­bott.

Af­ter ad­mit­ting the deficit the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment faced in opin­ion polls midyear was far from in­sur­mount­able, Er­ring­ton and van Onselen ar­gue “Ab­bott’s prob­lem was that nei­ther his min­istry nor the back­bench had any con­fi­dence that the prime min­is­ter had the lead­er­ship skills to win again”.

As we know, how­ever, a num­ber of min­is­ters not only sup­ported Ab­bott re­main­ing PM but

also be­lieved that he could de­feat Bill Shorten in the next fed­eral elec­tion.

Of course Ab­bott made mis­takes. As Nor­ton Hob­son, my school­mas­ter at Mel­bourne High School, told us in the late 1950s: “That’s why they put erasers at the end of pen­cils.” Ab- bott’s er­rors as PM in­clude pro­mot­ing so few women into cab­i­net; break­ing key elec­tion prom­ises, in­clud­ing no cuts to health, ed­u­ca­tion, the ABC and SBS; and re­in­stat­ing knight­hoods. In par­tic­u­lar his ‘‘cap­tain’s call’’ to make Prince Philip a Knight of the Or­der of Aus­tralia on Jan­uary 26 this year was a sig­nif­i­cant er­ror of judg­ment.

Even so, a more even-handed anal­y­sis would at least in­volve high­light­ing some of his gov­ern­ment’s achieve­ments. How the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment man­aged to stop the boats, re­peal taxes, re­move a mass of un­nec­es­sary reg­u­la­tions, ini­ti­ate ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture, start the task of bud­get re­pair, fi­nalise three free-trade agree­ments and keep the na­tion safe un­der such dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances is also a story that needs to be told. To my mind, Er­ring­ton and Van Onselen in their punchy ex­e­ge­sis don’t even try to be­gin telling it.

Tony Ab­bott with his con­tentious chief of staff Peta Credlin

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.