Chief concern

There is a doggedness to certain questions in Canberra. They form the basis for perennial narratives, putting order to the messy business of politics. The price of a litre of milk is one. Leadership tension is another. Less virulent but still hardy is the competence of senior staffers.

Once one of these narratives takes hold, they are difficult to shift. An inevitability forms around the questions. Such is the narrative firming around Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Consider the following exchange, relating to Abbott’s knighting of Prince Philip.

Journalist: “Prime Minister, just on that consultation, did you consult with your chief of staff, and if so, what was her advice on this matter?”

Abbott: “I consulted with the chairman of the Council of the Order of Australia and I consulted with the governor-general.”

Journalist: “So, not your chief of staff?”

Abbott: “No. I consulted with the chairman of the council and I consulted with the governor-general.”

Journalist: “Did you raise the issue with Peta Credlin?”

Abbott: “I’m just not going to get into this kind of internal navel-gazing – I’m really not. I did what I thought was appropriate.”

Abbott’s office is undoubtedly dysfunctional. Some put it in the same territory as Kevin Rudd’s office at its most chaotic. But there is now a concerted effort under way to have Credlin carry the blame for that dysfunction.

Rupert Murdoch put his position this way: “Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign… Forget fairness. This change only way to recover team work and achieve so much possible for Australia. Leading involves cruel choices.”

The issue was on the front page of the Fairfax press this week: “Get Credlin. Trouble at the top.” And The Australian: “Contrite PM digs in behind Credlin.”

Credlin’s competence and influence over Abbott’s office has been a running issue, one that gathered pace after the bungled GP co-payment.

At a press conference last December, Abbott was invited to criticise Credlin but refused. “The first thing to say is that I stand by my office. It’s a very good office… I stand by all the senior members of my office. They do a fantastic job under sometimes difficult circumstances.”

He made a similar point talking to Lyndal Curtis on the ABC: “This is the same office which ran a very effective opposition, it’s the same office which has got an enormous amount done this year, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. The other point I make – do you really think, Lyndal, that my chief of staff would be under this kind of criticism if her name was P-e-t-e-r as opposed to P-e-t-a?”

Some of Abbott’s problems no doubt relate to a management style Credlin shares with him. The point that he ran with her an effective and combative opposition is part of the reason he is not running an effective government. But there is more to the issue than that.

It seems unlikely, despite agitators in the press, that Credlin will be sacked. This is the woman he praised as the “fiercest political warrior I have ever worked with”. But if she were sacked, or compelled to resign, Abbott’s office would not change. As with Rudd, dysfunction sweeps up those around him but it can only end with his own departure from the prime ministership. Making Credlin a sacrifice to the press would not change that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Chief concern".

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