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Kevin Rudd was given no warning, but even he lasted longer than Abbott. Julia Gillard had plenty of warnings, but even she lasted longer than Abbott.
Abbott ignored all the warnings, from beginning to end — the public ones, the private ones, from his friends, his colleagues, the media.
His colleagues were not being disloyal. They did not feel they had betrayed him; they believed he had betrayed them. Their motives were honourable. They didn’t want him to fail; they wanted the government to succeed, and they wanted the Coalition re-elected.
Abbott and Credlin had played it harder and rougher than anybody else to get where they wanted to be. But they proved incapable of managing their own office, much less the government. Then, when it was over, when it was crystal-clear to everyone that they had failed, when everyone else could see why they had failed, she played the gender card while he played the victim.
In The Road to Ruin, prominent political commentator, author, and columnist for The Australian Niki Savva reveals the ruinous behaviour of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Based on her unrivalled access to their colleagues, and devastating first-person accounts of what went on behind the scenes, Savva paints an unforgettable picture of a unique duo who wielded power ruthlessly but not well.
440 pages, Kindle Edition
First published March 7, 2016
Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government is written in a gossipy, conversational style. Reading it, I felt as though Niki was dishing the dirt over a quiet chardonnay in Kingston. The casual style works because Savva, a political journalist and former media advisor to Treasurer Peter Costello, is giving readers a look into the inner workings of the Australian political machinery.
The first half of the book details the deeply dysfunctional relationship between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his “one woman Praetorian Guard”, his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.
Savva details the bizarre level of micro-management that Credlin exerted over the Prime Minister’s office, letting briefs and minutes pile up in her in-tray as she consulted with the Prime Minister’s chef over menus, picked flower arrangements for the G20 meeting, and personally oversaw renovations at the Prime Minister’s Canberra residence.
She also spells out one outlandish incident after another, with Credlin routinely storming out of meetings, shouting at the Prime Minister to “fuck off”, and on one occasion even delaying a motorcade in Indonesia as she and Tony Abbott had it out behind closed doors. As Savva notes:
“The volatility, the questionable judgement, the unnecessary meddling at every level, not only made for a dysfunctional office; it filtered through every nook and cranny of the government.”
There’s sadness too, as Savva, herself a political conservative, saw how things could have turned out so much better:
“In my weekly column for The Australian on 6 June 2013, a few months before the election, I offered what I believed was constructive advice about what was needed for Abbott to succeed in government.”
The morning the piece was published, the then leader of the Opposition texted her: “Niki, enjoyed today’s piece and got a good chuckle from the cartoon. Cheers Tony.” Savva continues:
“That ‘cartoon’ was a magnificent illustration by Eric Lobbecke, showing Credlin as a sword-wielding Amazon with Abbott peeking out from behind her, fingers demurely entertwined. John Lyons saw the illustration hanging on Credlin’s wall when he interviewed her for The Australian, for a piece published on 21 February 2015. He was taken aback when he saw it displayed so prominently because of what it said about their relationship.
Whatever message Abbott took from that column, it wasn’t the right one. The same goes for Credlin. All the seeds were sown then. All he had to do was make a few adjustments. He never did.”
For The Road to Ruin, Savva interviewed other prominent Prime Ministerial staffers including Tony Eggleton, who was Harold Holt’s press secretary when the latter drowned in 1967 and, as Federal director of the Liberal Party, was suddenly thrust into the limelight during the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975; and Tony O’Leary who, as Prime Minister John Howard’s press secretary in 2001, was preparing for a White House meeting with President George Bush when terrorist planes flew into the World Trade Center.
As Savva points out, these anecdotes illustrate:
“… the extreme importance of having professionals in those jobs, then trusting them to do them. They also show when it’s time for staff to butt out and leave it all to the politicians… or how the best always tell the boss what he or she doesn’t want to hear.”
She goes on to highlight:
“… another extreme failure in the Abbott office. There was no division of responsibilities; instead there was a takeover. The chief of staff not only took over the jobs of the political advisers, the policy advisers, the administrative staff, the decorators, and the menu planners, but she took over the jobs of the press secretaries too.”
The reader is left to speculate about whether Peta Credlin would have performed as admirably as Tony Eggleton or Tony O’Leary in similarly difficult circumstances.
While Savva’s gossipy style is employed to good effect in this political tell-all, the historical sidebars would have benefited from more context. No doubt all Australians of a certain age remember where they were when they heard that Prime Minister Holt was missing, presumed drowned, or that the Whitlam government had been dismissed, but The Road to Ruin would be of interest to a broader audience, and have more longevity, if the historical background were painted in.
The second half of the book focuses on the Liberal party’s increasingly desperate attempts to persuade Tony Abbott to stand aside, then when those tactics failed, the machinations of the “Group of Eight” who worked with Malcolm Turnbull to deliver the September 2015 coup which finally unseated the Prime Minister.
As Savva writes of the G8, “It was precise, it was discreet, it was swift, and it had every possible contingency covered”. The blow-by-blow account of the Group’s manoeuvrings becomes tedious, but may provide a useful playbook the next time an Australian political party wants to dump their leader.
The Road to Ruin finishes with some reflections on Tony Abbott’s psychological makeup, the challenges facing Prime Minister Turnbull, and the Australian political system. Savva concludes that our revolving door of leaders is proof that the system does, in fact, work:
“Between late 2007 and 2013, the ‘system’ threw up three deeply flawed and deficient individuals who became prime minister, then the system rose up to eject them. The fact that this could happen is proof that it works well, that it does the job it was designed to do.”
Perhaps the last word in this saga belongs to The Huffington Post, which posted on 15 September 2015:
“It’s Monday, so Australia has a new prime minister”.