Abbott’s battleground smoulders on
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