As is almost always the case after a tumultuous political event, there has been a scramble to frame the motivations of key players in the downfall of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his short-lived Coalition government.
According to one camp, Abbott was undermined by Malcolm Turnbull and betrayed by both his deputy Julie Bishop and social services minister Scott Morrison. The contrary view is that Turnbull stepped forward to fix what he saw as a deficiency in the prime minister’s economic leadership.
Until late last week, neither explanation canvassed the dysfunction that reportedly was endemic within Abbott’s prime ministerial office at the time.
However, the publication late last week of excerpts from columnist Niki Savva’s book on that dysfunction has changed the tenor of the claims and counter-claims, but not necessarily for the better. The full version of Savva’s book is published today.
Since being deposed as Liberal leader, Abbott’s public interventions have been justified as a legitimate defence of his legacy.
That argument began to show cracks last week, however, when the former PM openly criticised the Turnbull Government in response to a leaked draft of the defence white paper. Abbott claimed the draft indicated the building of Australia’s new submarine fleet had been delayed by a decade.
This claim was refuted by the Department of Defence, which stated the earlier start date was never a real option.
Aside from showing Abbott’s willingness to step beyond the defence of his legacy to actually criticise the Turnbull administration, this incident was also notable for the Prime Minister’s pushback. Abbott made it plain he would speak out to protect the historical record of his time in office, but Turnbull made it equally clear he would step in to correct that record if it was in danger of being retrospectively revised.
“I respect Tony’s right to speak his mind and he should continue to do so,” Turnbull noted last week, “but it’s very important that as Prime Minister, I set the record straight.”
We’ll never know if that standoff would have been enough to restore a semblance of order to the Government.
The release of Savva’s book is guaranteed to produce even more upheaval within the Coalition’s ranks, with Abbott and his former senior staffer, Peta Credlin, confronted with the book’s contention – often based on first-hand accounts – that he was unhealthily dependent on her, while she ran a dysfunctional office, and both factors contributed to their downfall.
Savva claims her book is also about setting the record straight. The columnist and author chose to give voice to the parliamentarians and staffers who endured the dysfunction, and therefore decided not to offer Abbott or Credlin the right of reply.
Savva told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday that she had concluded:
Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin, any day, any night can get out there and give their version of events. And their version of events often differs very wildly from everybody else’s and there are people who had been abused for years during that administration who suffered in silence. And I thought they should be given the chance to tell their story.
A deliberate omission of this sort does expose Savva to accusations of ethical deficiency, as noted by Credlin in response to an early excerpt of the book airing gossip about the nature of her relationship with Abbott.
But given Savva has been a long-time critic of Abbott and Credlin, her expose of the pair’s time in office was never going to be a hagiography. She likely would have had little inclination to seek or publish denials from the pair, particularly those she believed to be unfounded.
As much as some Liberals may be relieved that the worst elements of the Abbott era are now in the open, strengthening the Turnbull camp’s justification for cleaning it out, it’s possible the Savva book will incite retaliatory action from the Abbott camp and create even more instability within the Government.
It is already commonplace for the Government’s daily talking points to be leaked to the media, and there has been a succession of targeted leaks such as the draft defence paper last week.
There is of course no proof the leaks came from the Abbott camp, even though its members have the most obvious motive for doing so.
So we should be alert for more leaks in the weeks to come, perhaps focused on the people who were prepared to go on the record to criticise Abbott or Credlin for the Savva book.
One such person is the former minister Stuart Robert, who recounts in the book his run-in with Credlin over a request to take a photo of Abbott wearing a non-regulation tie. It is difficult to avoid seeing a connection between Robert’s cooperation with Savva, and the series of anonymous leaks last month that exposed his dodgy ministerial dealings in China and led to his resignation.
While Coalition MPs might be hoping the Savva book will shame Abbott into becoming a team player again, it’s more likely to have the opposite effect by further inflaming the former PM’s thirst for retribution.
Even though Savva recounts many examples of prime minister Abbott ignoring the advice of his colleagues, peer pressure may well be the best way to cajole backbencher Abbott.
Accordingly, the comments made by Abbott supporter Mathias Cormann late last week are both illuminating and instructive.
Cormann warned that Abbott was not Kevin Rudd, and had not “at this stage” destabilised the Government to the extent that Rudd did. He went on to note that “whoever did leak that [defence] document was incredibly reckless with our national security” and that he “would have preferred if Tony had chosen not to comment publicly.”
More pointedly, Turnbull supporter Mitch Fifield told Insiders on Sunday that former leaders had earned a right to speak on a range of issues but they also had a duty of care not to do or say anything that would affect the Government’s electoral prospects.
Noting Abbott’s claim that “we’ve got to focus on the election of the Turnbull Government”, Fifield said he expected Abbott to follow through on that.