Credlin & Co.
Blame The West Wing. The sublime American drama set in the administration of President Jed Bartlet also gave us Leo McGarry, White House chief of staff. McGarry was Bartlet’s confidant, gatekeeper, enforcer and sometime conscience. His character seems to have emboldened the egos of starstruck Australian political staffers, who forget that in a Westminster system they are peons not powerbrokers. Chief among the offenders, in Aaron Patrick’s account of the destruction of the Abbott government, was the former prime minister’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin.
Credlin was a career Liberal Party staffer, intelligent and committed to right-wing ideology but elected by no one – a fact she never respected. During the 2013 campaign, she humiliated a democratically elected Liberal MP, shadow minister and former army officer, Stuart Robert, jabbing her finger at him in front of TV cameras. “She was swearing like nothing else – using the F and C words,” Patrick quotes a former humble Liberal staffer as saying. “You just don’t talk to politicians like that. But she never seemed to think the rules applied to her.”
Credlin only had such authority because Abbott was unsure of his own. Patrick argues that Abbott, successful as a destructive opposition leader, was not ready to govern. His book breaks no new ground; it is a superior version of what’s known in journalism as a “cuts job”, drawing on previously published material. But he provides an arc along which we see the unravelling of a party that came to office with an ideology it was unwilling to share with the voters before the election.
Patrick tells the story as only someone from the corporate-friendly press could. He’s print editor at The Australian Financial Review and he seems to think Abbott’s biggest error was reintroducing knighthoods and awarding one to Prince Philip. Most Australians thought this antiquated but it inflicted nowhere near as much damage as the budget of 2014, with its abolition of bulk-billing for Medicare, unregulated university fees, a six-month waiting period for the dole, cuts to pension increases and incentives for state governments to privatise public services and assets.
Through this lens, Patrick treats the second coming of Malcolm Turnbull as almost biblical in a libertarian way. Australians will soon decide if Turnbull’s ideology – tax cuts for the wealthy, job insecurity for the rest; an illusion of action on climate change, same-sex marriage, a republic – is also theirs. PT
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Aaron Patrick, Credlin & Co. ". Subscribe here.