Abbott’s defence of Credlin a career-limiting move?

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.

Chief of staff job too big for one person

According to last week’s political commentary, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Peta Credlin is to blame, at least in part, for the Abbott Government’s woes.

Credlin is not always named in these articles, with the less courageous mostly referring to her euphemistically as “the Prime Minister’s office”.

So we read in the weekend wrap-ups of what was arguably this Coalition Government’s worst week that much of it was apparently Credlin’s fault. The selectively leaked and then disavowed decision to drop the Medicare co-payment was due to “a unilateral decision taken by the Prime Minister’s office”, and the Dead Man Walking Defence Minister David Johnston would remain in Cabinet only because Abbott “and his office stubbornly insist that there is no need for a reshuffle”.

Another commentator went so far as to suggest that the biggest barnacles weighing down the Coalition ship of state were Abbott’s “deep unpopularity and predilection for listening to his office’s advice rather than that of his parliamentary team”.

And that’s the nub of Credlin’s problem, which is pretty much the same as that faced by most other contemporary prime ministerial chiefs of staff: MPs resent an unelected staffer playing gatekeeper and being the Prime Minister’s principal confidante. So when their access is limited or their pearls of advice are not acted upon, disgruntled MPs whinge to the media that the “prime minister and his office don’t listen”.

That’s not to say there mightn’t be some substance to the complaint. Aside from her capacity to ruthlessly hose down the ambitious manoeuvrings of ministers and wannabe ministers, Credlin is indeed said to be resistant to seeking or taking advice from experienced parliamentarians and strategists, as well as wise heads in the business community. She’s also known to excommunicate individual journalists or whole media organisations that she’s deemed to have crossed the Government in some egregious way.

But whether Credlin can or should be held responsible for the Government’s woes is another thing altogether. One former chief of staff, or CoS, in the recent book The Gatekeepers, says attacks on the person occupying that role are proxy attacks on the leader, and that it’s a fundamental part of the CoS’s job to be the lightning rod for those complaints.

On that measure, it’s Credlin’s job to take the blame.

However, one of The Gatekeepers’ authors, Anne Tiernan, said recently that prime ministers get the staff they deserve. Tiernan was referring to the tendency of successive modern prime ministers to draw organisational functions away from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), because they want these functions to be managed within their own office, but that the offices are ill-equipped for management.

Tiernan noted this mismatch has been exacerbated by the attendant tendency of prime ministers to personally appoint their CoS, instead of the role being filled from the public service, as often used to be the case.

The need for a CoS to fulfil both the traditional political support role and this additional organisational management role can lead to bottlenecks and logjams, such as that identified by a more courageous political commentator on the weekend, who named Credlin as “the chokepoint through which every decision must pass … according to the universal accounts from inside the Abbott Government”. Apparently this includes setting strategy, making appointments, and deciding policy, and extended to logistics for the recent G20 meetings.

Well, fair enough, that’s Credlin’s job, but it may be too much of a job for one person to handle.

It may be true, as one columnist noted on the weekend, that it was Credlin who drew up Abbott’s successful strategy in opposition, and that the perception in “the prime minister’s office” right now is that a panicking party has forgotten “who put it in power”. But a great strategist in opposition does not necessarily make a competent CoS or one that is able to adequately perform all of its functions.

During much of the Howard years, different aspects of the role currently being performed by Credlin were divided among a trusted few. During the time he was Howard’s CoS, Arthur Sinodinos was the political strategist and confidante who worked with the Cabinet Office on policy development, while Tony Nutt was the political enforcer. Sinodinos brought to the PMO a fundamental understanding of how government works – being a former Treasury official – while Nutt, the impeccably credentialed political fix-it man, did what he does best. Their good cop/bad cop routine maintained discipline while ensuring that everyone felt valued and consulted.

Howard’s best years were arguably when this arrangement was in place.

The arrival of Michael Thawley as the new head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet may signify Abbott’s recognition of the need to do something similar. Thawley is an experienced bureaucrat and diplomat, with almost a decade’s experience in the US investment industry, and as PM Howard’s former international adviser is also an experienced senior staffer.

Thawley’s arrival may see for the first time in recent history a return of some of the functions that successive prime ministers have taken from PM&C, thereby theoretically lessening the load on Credlin.

Media reports today suggest Thawley’s first task will be to get the Government’s economic strategy back on track. So, in this sense, it appears Abbott has realised he IS ultimately to blame for the Government’s misfortunes and in appointing Thawley has done something about it.

Meanwhile, ministers are already making mischief in the media, saying there are high hopes for Thawley being able set effective strategy “unless he meets an immovable object”, which apparently is the new code for Credlin.

Whether the PM intentionally or not brought in Thawley to meet a deficit in Credlin’s skill set, she will at least be partly responsible for whether her working relationship with Abbott’s new man is a harmonious one.

And if it turns out to be obstructionist or acrimonious, then at least this will be something for which Credlin most definitely should take the blame.