ONCE WERE WARRIORS
Niki Savva’s dissection of the Abbott-Credlin alliance portrays a political duo who knew only one way of fighting, writes Stephen Loosley
Metaphorically, being asked to review Niki Savva’s new book, The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government, is akin to being asked to conduct a walking tour of downtown Hiroshima on the afternoon of August 6, 1945, following the impact of Little Boy.
In Canberra, little that could be considered Liberal was left standing. The blast from Savva’s account of the self-immolation of the Abbott government produced destruction in the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party, and the fallout continues. Indeed, given the reaction in the Abbott camp to Savva’s analysis, and the author’s preparedness to deploy her column in The Australian and media commentary as a type of defensive trench mortar, a hard rain is still falling.
Behind the overwhelming interest in The Road to Ruin is the perception in some places, especially within Coalition ranks, that prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, were conducting an affair during their working life together in the Liberal leader’s office. Both have denied the claim outright and there is a distinct lack of credible evidence pointing to a liaison.
Gossip abounds. Rumours swirl. Indisputable facts, however, that could substantiate allegations of an illicit relationship are absent. Indeed, it is doubtful whether even the Inspector Javerts of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption would pursue an investigation based on little more than suspicion and hearsay.
But Canberra is about power, acknowledged rightly by Henry Kissinger as the ultimate aphrodisiac, and the fact the prime minister was the target of innuendo and that his most senior adviser was also married to the then federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, simply poured gasoline on a fire.
The suggestion of an affair has catapulted Savva’s book to the top of the Australian bestseller lists and into a third printing, but the furore has obscured the more important questions that need to be answered about the conduct of successive Australian governments over the past decade.
The core question is this: Why have Australian governments on both sides of the aisle em- braced the indulgent politics and legendary instability of the French Fourth Republic (1946-58) with such apparent exuberance and enthusiasm?
The long and successful periods of Labor governments under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996), followed by similar stability and accomplishment under John Howard (1996-2007) have been supplanted by instability and internal treachery. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period of Labor’s governance was characterised by dysfunction and disappointment. But so too was the Abbott government.
Similarly, the Turnbull government is already beginning to display the same features (and flaws).
Savva provides part of the answer early in her book. Discussing the transition following Abbott’s victory in the 2013 federal election, she writes: Abbott and Credlin had been on a war footing every day for four years before they got into government. Their four-year war was brilliant, brutal and extremely effective. The problem was that, once they got there, they couldn’t stop campaigning. Like soldiers or war correspondents hooked on adrenaline, their expertise and their passion was all about the fighting and the crushing of enemies, real or imagined, rather than on governing.
In short, the emphasis on campaigning in opposition had masked the need for serious policy work and the crafting of an agenda for government. It is an echo of the powerful final line in Robert Redford’s landmark film The Candidate, where Bill McKay asks on the night of his election to the US Senate: “What happens now?”
The Abbott-Credlin relationship had been forged in fire and they considered themselves warriors. But the warrior code is only one of the skills required in government; others include a breadth of vision, diplomacy, an understanding of consequences, and a need to stay in touch with the electorate, particularly the base.
However, the relationship between leader and adviser had led to the Coalition’s return to government, and fierce mutual loyalties had