In the political style the Prime Minister has managed to make his own – namely tumbling from frying pan to fire – Tony Abbott has exacerbated the hostilities simmering between his chief of staff and colleagues by accusing the MPs of sexism.
In doing so, he may have made a career-limiting move.
In the face of ongoing criticism about the operational style of his most senior adviser, Peta Credlin, Abbott made the extraordinary suggestion today that she would not be “under this kind of criticism if her name was P-E-T-E-R as opposed to P-E-T-A”, and that “people need to take a long, hard look at themselves with some of these criticisms”.
This proposition involves a lack of self-reflection that is breathtaking even for Abbott.
Not that long ago, certainly within the memory of most voters, Abbott accused the then prime minister Julia Gillard of playing the gender card when she suggested some of the criticisms levelled against her were due to sexism. Abbott denied there was any inherent sexism in the community, stressing that any and all criticisms of Gillard were based on her competency and not her gender.
By this logic, Abbott has placed himself between the rock that is Credlin’s incompetency and the hard place that is a sexist parliamentary wing. That’s sure to go down well in the party room.
Ambitious backbenchers and sidelined ministers have grumbled to the media for months about Credlin’s centralised micromanagement style. This has flared into several spot fires over past weeks as opinion polls continue to look dire for the Coalition and ministers angling for promotion (or simply to save their skin) have ratcheted up the blame game.
To an extent, such behaviour is par for the course. It’s the chief of staff’s job to support and protect the Prime Minister, and being the gatekeeper necessarily involves being the flak-catcher too. Credlin is not the first or last PM’s chief of staff to be met with resistance or agitation from the parliamentary wing.
But concerns expressed about Credlin have flared dangerously beyond what is the norm, evidenced by the astonishing story published earlier this week suggesting the Liberals’ most senior elected woman, the Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, is at loggerheads with the adviser and unwilling to continue “taking orders” from her.
This revelation comes after weeks (and, in some cases, months) of claims from conservative columnists and commentators, as well as journalists with strong Liberal or business connections, that no advice is getting to the PM other than that permitted by Credlin. Former PM John Howard and the Liberals’ campaign strategist Mark Textor have even taken to the airwaves in apparent attempts to get through.
And now to dismiss these criticisms as mere sexism, and therefore without foundation, Abbott is essentially pulling down the shutters.
Former Howard government minister Peter Reith is reported to have cautioned against this, saying it was “a bit of a mistake on Tony’s part to throw in the gender claim”, and that Abbott “would be wise to put to the side gender issues and focus on genuine concerns and worries people have had, generally on the backbench but also some ministers”.
On this occasion Reith is absolutely right. This is anything but a wise move for a party leader to do when his MPs are feeling demoralised and pessimistic about their future electoral prospects.
Abbott has rightly noted that Coalition MPs would be disinclined to change prime ministers mid-stream in light of the voter wrath brought down on Labor for doing the same. But Abbott ignores the fact that he is more unpopular than Rudd was at the time of being deposed, and by refusing to countenance any suggestion that Credlin is either incompetent, or just not managing the role effectively, Abbott is inviting dissenters to conclude that the only way to get rid of Credlin is to get rid of him.
Ultimately, the Prime Minister is responsible for the staff appointed to his office and the advice he decides to accept and act upon. By deflecting criticisms of Credlin, which are in fact de facto criticisms of him, and calling his own people sexist, Abbott is causing himself an almighty problem – he’s disregarding and provoking the very people who can remove him (and Credlin) from the Prime Minister’s office.