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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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