Good cop, bad cop: The Abbott and Credlin campaign strategy?

Whether his new found support of the re-election of the Turnbull government is genuine or not, Tony Abbott should find it easier to play nice now that his former chief of staff Peta Credlin has joined the flock of political commentators circling for election campaign carrion.

Around the time the Ipsos and Morgan polls reported that Labor had drawn even with the Government on a two-party preferred basis, and Newspoll had the Opposition maintaining a modest lead, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott caught up for a chat. Or a beer, according to one media report.

The Prime Minister confirmed this apparent rapprochement in a radio interview, telling his host “yeah I had a good chat with him just the other day” about “life, politics, everything”.

The discussion, with or without beverage, also occurred around the time the former prime minister conceded he had made mistakes while in the top job.

Whether Turnbull used previously untapped powers of persuasion during the meeting with his predecessor, or Abbott’s introspection led to a change of heart, the ex-PM’s behaviour appears to have changed since that time.

Up until then, Abbott’s post-leadership existence was seemingly focused with laser precision on two aims – defending the conservative cause and protecting his legacy. There were speeches, articles and even a world tour in aid of these objectives.

There was even talk of Abbott running his own race during the federal election campaign, strategically leaked to a favoured tabloid journalist who wrote the former PM would “launch his own DIY national election tour, campaigning in marginal seats across Australia, after the Liberal Party failed to organise him a formal role”.

This was considered even by some of Abbott’s staunchest supporters as a bridge too far. One arch-conservative, Cory Bernardi, expressed hope Abbott would play a positive role in the election campaign because “the country is going to be better served by a Liberal government than a Labor one”.

Another right-winger was concerned Abbott would be “enormously disruptive” if he campaigned in other seats. And yet another supporter worried the former PM’s campaign was “not necessarily about the election of Malcolm Turnbull”.

That was in late March. Abbott now appears to have accepted his fate, telling the number one cardholder of the Tony Abbott fan club, Andrew Bolt, the “Abbott era has been”.

He accepted “the party made a decision back on the 14th of September last year” and he didn’t expect it “to ever go back on that decision”.

The former PM also stressed that any role he played in the election campaign would be a positive one, saying he was “running to support the Turnbull government and whatever the campaign thinks I might be best doing, that’s what I’ll be very happy to do.”

When asked whether he accepted Abbott’s apparent relinquishment of leadership ambitions as genuine, PM Turnbull noted, “That’s what he said, so I’m sure he stands by his words.”

Whether genuine or not, Abbott should find it easier to play nice now that his former chief of staff Peta Credlin has joined the flock of political commentators circling for election campaign carrion.

Even after only one week as an election commentator for the Murdoch press and partly-owned Sky News, Credlin appears to have taken up where her former boss left off.

The long-time political operative has made no attempt at objectivity, stating she’s proudly a Liberal and will be providing observations and analysis from that perspective.

Accordingly, Credlin has championed Liberal conservatives’ causes and fiercely defended the Abbott government’s legacy. At times it has been spooky to hear the lines about boats and taxes that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Abbott come tumbling from Credlin’s lips instead.

Just one week into the campaign, there are also hints that Credlin aims to do more than garner a few more subscribers for Sky News and rehabilitate her career. She may also have political revenge on her mind.

It first appeared that Credlin in this new public role might not indulge in the payback for which some detractors say she is famous. Even when invited by fellow panellists to criticise the PM and the Government’s election campaign, Credlin initially replied with a straight bat.

That changed towards week’s end when Credlin labeled Turnbull as “Mr Harbourside Mansion” and then wrote in her weekend column that the Government looked devious with its superannuation changes, asking, “Why should people trust a government that raids their personal, private savings whenever it needs money?”

Both interventions played straight into Labor’s hands, reinforcing two of the Opposition’s lines of attack on the Prime Minister: that he’s out of touch, and that he can’t be trusted.

Even more significantly, Credlin’s undermining of the superannuation changes continues the resistance that Abbott first raised against such reforms. Originally labeling the tax concession cuts as a “seniors tax”, Abbott has now toed the line, telling his local paper the changes were a “gutsy call” by the Government.

In his place, Credlin is flying the flag for conservatives who are aghast at the move.

Defenders of Credlin and Abbott will likely claim the former adviser is simply calling it as she sees it, but given Credlin has declared herself a partisan it’s difficult to see how giving Labor a free kick helps the Liberal cause.

There are also ample grounds for her wanting retribution. Turnbull moved Credlin out of the chief of staff role when he inherited her from Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson in 2008, and later drew to a premature close the prime ministerial career of the man who reinstated her to that role, Tony Abbott.

It’s therefore very tempting to conclude Credlin is acting as proxy mud-slinger for Abbott, as well as tossing a few sods at Turnbull on her own behalf.

For his part, the former PM is not inclined to criticise his former adviser and current Canberra-landlord for making Turnbull’s campaign for re-election more difficult.

Describing her commentary to date as “riveting”, Abbott interestingly insisted that Credlin spoke for herself, that she’d “made some pretty powerful calls this week”, and that we’d “continue to see her being a very important and interesting commentator this election”.

What Abbott means by “important” and “interesting” is yet to be seen. But the odds are on Credlin continuing to play bad cop while Abbott remains beholden to his good cop commitment.

Author: Drag0nista

Political columnist at The New Daily | Editor of Despatches & AusVotes 2019 | Author of On Merit, a book on the Liberals' *women problem*. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989.

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