I don’t normally read political non-fiction although I have read the occasional political memoir. Unless it touches on an issue I’m particularly passionate about, I have too many other books I actually want to read!
However the media storm and book buying frenzy surrounding Niki Savva’s recent book got under my skin. What was it about this particular political book that got everyone so excited?
The full title of The Road to Ruin is How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed their own Government.
There was already a book published in February by Aaron Patrick called Credlin & Co: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself? How was The Road to Ruin different? Why did Savva’s book generate all this intense interest?
Patrick is a writer for the Australian Financial Review and has written a previous book about the downfall of Labor. The blurb for his book says:
Credlin was Abbott’s enforcer, his disciplinarian, his counsellor, his brain, his mother. Her strength as a chief of staff was a sign of his weakness as a prime minister: she gave him the option of disengaging. Credlin allowed Abbott to be who he wanted to be: the good bloke, the philosopher, the weekend fire-fighter, the surfer, the orator, the man of action. If Abbott was a natural leader, it could have worked. But he lacked the most important attribute of all: judgement.
Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, ran a brilliant campaign in opposition. But their approach led to disaster in government.
When Abbott became prime minister, he and Credlin ruthlessly controlled ministers, backbenchers, the public service and the media. They shut out voices that questioned Abbott’s way. Everything started to unravel.
Credlin & Co. is the story of a relationship that determined the fate of a government. It shows in stunning detail the disastrous consequences of power abused, and the broken people left in its wake.
Niki Savva used to be a political staffer in the Liberal Party. She is also a journalist and writer and has a political memoir called So Greek that dissects the defeat of the Liberals in the 2007 election. Part of Savva’s appeal then is her insider knowledge.
The blurb for The Road to Ruin says:
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.
Savva was also very good at working the media in the week leading up to the book’s publication. She was on every program – TV and radio. A social media buzz was created. And then she dropped the bombshell on the day before publication that there were rumours of an affair between Abbott and Credlin and the media went wild!
In hindsight, I find this quite extraordinary, because according to her book, Savva claimed that many, many people in Canberra had been expressing their concerns about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship for quite some time. This was not new news to those in the know, but it was the first time that someone had gone public with these suspicions. And the public lapped it up.
This is where my feminist sensibilities kicked in.
Was this another case of a woman in power being brought down because she was a powerful woman? As Credlin herself said the week after Abbott lost the leadership,
If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong. If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail. If I wasn’t strong, determined, controlling (and got them into government from opposition I might add), then I would be weak and not up to it and should have to go and could be replaced.
I had to find out for myself.
The first two chapters were a little like reading the personality disorder section in a psychiatrist’s DSM-5.
Credlin exhibited secretive, inappropriate, hysterical, abusive, volatile, charming, obsessive, belittling, unpredictable, demanding, imperious, intimidating, denigrating, bullying, intelligent, hard-working, controlling, excluding, alienating, and punishing behaviours. She was willing to cross lines and meddle unnecessarily in her staff’s private lives. She was unable to consider information that didn’t fit her world view and she exhibited extreme shifts in behaviour.
Abbott was silly, injudicious, brutal, threatening, indulgent, arrogant, placating and enthralled.
Their relationship was described as complex, inexplicable, detrimental, destructive, protective, psychologically dependent, consuming and obsessive – ‘she was his Wallis Simpson’, ‘his Lady Macbeth’.
Savva’s subsequent chapters (and the bulk of the book) went on to describe in great detail the various decisions, meetings and going-ons that made up the day to day stuff of this government. This is where my eyes began to glaze over!
Nevertheless, it was clear to me that Savva was building her case, story by intricate story, about how the very tight, controlling relationship between Abbott and Credlin, ultimately had a negative impact on almost every decision that was made during their time in government.
Some of the stories about how staffers and ministers were treated reminded me of the ones that emerged from Rudd’s office when he was deposed as Prime Minister.
And although I’m too young to really remember the Whitlam years, the rumours of an affair reminded me of how Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi’s relationship was one of the contributing factors in the downfall of Whitlam.
A politician should be able to expect a degree of privacy in their personal life away from the office. But when their personal relationships spill over into their working life, when they choose to blur the boundaries between private and public, then the same degree of respectful privacy cannot be expected.
I am a feminist but this doesn’t mean that I think that all women are angels or that all men are monsters. Some men and some women treat people appalling. They are disrespectful, aggressive and manipulative. When it all goes pear shaped it is never their fault. They are the victims and everyone else is to blame. And you will never be able to convince then otherwise.
Credlin, and to a lesser degree, Abbott, fit into this category.
This was not a book written by a powerful woman to bring down another powerful woman. This was a political insider’s pretty harsh critique of Abbott and Credlin and their rather toxic term in power.