The high priestess of Abbott failure

Cross-posted from The Conversation

Julie Bishop and Peta Credlin had one significant parallel experience on the way to government. They both survived three Liberal leaders.

Bishop was deputy to Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Credlin was chief of staff or deputy (Turnbull demoted her) in the offices of all three.

The women each have well-honed political skills and, in government, positions of great power: Bishop as Foreign Minister as well as Liberal deputy (but not deputy prime minister), and Credlin as head of Abbott’s office, exercising remarkable sway over him and therefore the government.

They are also, according to one source who knows them well, “very similar personalities — very strong-willed, territorial, with a great sense of responsibility for whatever they are responsible for”.

Now the two are in a test of strength. It’s not as electric as has been portrayed this week when they were described as “like two Siamese fighting fish stuck in the same tank” (the expert advice, incidentally, says you need large tanks for those fish). They denied that comparison and apparently no row has been heard, there has been no overt flash point. But the battle is real and important for the Prime Minister and for his government. “Julie is the only one saying in a forceful way what everyone is thinking,” says one source.

The objections to the Abbott office are about Credlin’s centralisation and control. Some ministers have been running this line for a long time, and backbenchers as well. Certain ministers believe other ministers suck up to Credlin (or vice versa). Various ministers are mobilised on to the frontline to defend her when, as frequently these days, she’s under attack. It’s a complicated picture.

Bishop is both strong and in a strong position. Government has been good to her. She came to office well prepared; in addition she is (as Barack Obama once said of Julia Gillard) a quick study.

This year has also given her a high profile. After the MH17 disaster she was impressive at the United Nations Security Council. Australia’s temporary seat on the council provided a forum for her more generally.

In this week’s Essential poll, when people were asked about the performance of several leading politicians over the last 12 months, Bishop was the only one who came out with a net positive rating — plus 28. Tony Abbott was minus 22. Joe Hockey was minus 24 and Bill Shorten minus 5.

This week Bishop has been Australia’s chief negotiator at the United Nations Lima climate talks; next year she will be overseeing Australia’s run up to the December Paris climate conference.

Having found her feet early in the government, Bishop is not going to be pushed around by Prime Ministerial staff — that is, Credlin.

She was annoyed when Abbott sent Trade Minister Andrew Robb with her to Lima, especially when Robb was cast as her ‘chaperone’ (although at the conference itself this week the two are said to have worked together well).

She revealed publicly that she had initially been refused by the Prime Minister’s Office when she sought permission to go to Lima and that she pushed back and obtained approval (from cabinet). She also publicly made it clear she would be the team leader at Lima.

It was particularly important that she did not cede influence to Credlin on the climate issue. This was potentially tricky for Australia to manage at Lima and it is not going to get any easier in the countdown to the Paris conference and a new international agreement.

How well or badly Australian policy is managed will reflect on Bishop as much as on Abbott. She has to maintain a direct line to the Prime Minister on this crucial issue. She achieved that this week in relation to Australia’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund.

Abbott was dismissive of the fund but Bishop at the time of the G20 — which was a fiasco for the government on the climate front — indicated no decision had been taken to rule out a contribution.

Bishop spoke to Abbott from Lima and advised that Australia should put in some money. Abbott agreed and they announced $200 million. It was a sensible exercise in barnacle-cleaning.

It is worth remembering where Bishop has come from on climate change. Back in 2008, when Brendan Nelson was leader and climate policy an issue between him and an alliance of Malcolm Turnbull (shadow treasurer) and Greg Hunt (environment spokesman), Bishop was in the Turnbull/Hunt camp — those who said Australia must act, rather than waiting for the world.

Abbott — perennially under fire for not having more females in cabinet — now finds himself the man in the middle of two formidable women. He has to be loyal to Bishop; he wants to be loyal to Credlin — he describes his chief of staff as ‘the fiercest political warrior I’ve ever worked with’.

Credlin was the one closest to him in the trenches of opposition. But her degree of power, her management style, her omnipresence and her high visibility are eroding his authority. Bishop has called attention to the problem and, somehow, Abbott needs to fix it before it further damages him. He should ask Credlin, who has an opinion on most things, for some advice.

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra

Houses and Holes
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  1. strange thing for someone like me to say, but doesn’t this chick-on-chick meme have a whiff of sexism about it?
    A pity there are not more women commenters at MB.
    Right, got the PC off my chest.

    • Is it sexist against men to put Bishop on Cabinet just to meet some ‘ratio’. I always thought that the person who is best for the position gets the job regardless of sex?

      • Fair enough but thinking about the abilities of the current Liberal front bench, it does seem that (loathsome as she is) Bishop is at least a vaguely competent politician. Compared to Pyne, Hockey, Cormann, Morrison she looks light years ahead.

        If the best person got the job, it’s really hard to imagine who on that front bench would still be there.

      • “I always thought that the person who is best for the position gets the job regardless of sex?”

        In a prefect and rational world free of prejudice and arrogance, yes. But we live in the real world.

        As for the Opposition, it’s hard to believe the current front bench is the best they could come up with. If it really is (which I highly doubt) then we’re in deep trouble!

      • “I always thought that the person who is best for the position gets the job…”

        In Abbott’s cabinet? Seriously? Leaving aside the gender, you just need to look at the duds there to see that’s clearly not true.

    • Exactly, JohnR.

      I’m surprised no one has publicly called it a ‘catfight’ … yet.

      As a woman, I find the reporting and obsession with this to be exasperating. The same dynamic is played out daily between capable, strong-willed men, without the same coverage. Quite why the interactions of two capable, strong-willed women should be treated as a source of entertainment is beyond me.

    • Women don’t like taking direction from other women. From men, no problem. You can see this in any office across Australia, hence Credlin and Bishop are at each others throats. It’s an observable if not empirical fact (there is a book about it, i forger the name and author). It’s also something the feminists conveniently sweep under the rug as it doesn’t fit the silly little narrative they have created for themselves.

      • “…hence Credlin and Bishop are at each others throats.”

        I can’t stand Bishop but it doesn’t surprise me that she might be the only one with the balls to stand up to Abbott and Credlin. I don’t think it’s a gender thing at all – Abbott’s a yes man and the rest of his cabinet are too scared to be straight with him.

        Tony Abbott was seething as one of his backbenchers told him some home truths in the party room this week. Stop engaging in “verbal gymnastics” and be straight with people, was the advice of Sydney MP Craig Laundy. It was a watershed moment. The prime minister was being asked to live up to one of his most repeated promises: “We will be a government that means what it says and says what it means.”

        Essentially the emperor who had relentlessly attacked his predecessor Julia Gillard for breaching trust with the electorate and lying was found to be without clothes by one of his own. “It was a career-ending intervention for Craig,” was the observation of one of his admiring colleagues. His courage was born of frustration felt by many on the backbench as they watched their leader slip-sliding from reality during the first question time of the week.

      • I call bollocks on “Women dont like taking direction from women. From men, no problem”

        And it doesn’t matter if you are female or male JC, thats a sexist statement.

        Change it to “nobody likes taking direction from idiots” and it would be accurate. What you are observing in offices across Australia is poor staff management, very few managers are properly trained in this country.

  2. Sometimes the most glaringly obvious scenario can be articulated perfectly by those in the ‘know’ like Michelle, but cannot be overtly discussed.

    Particularly as it involves a PM.


    Luv Ya. 😉

    • sounds like a better explanation (so long as you are not triangulating anything, that’d be too much to swallow)

  3. I’ve been around her (~15 yrs back) when she headed up her law firm’s Perth office. Wasn’t impressed @ the time. She’s surprised me with her carriage of her portfolio [despite her cackhanded blast to Obama re: the GBR recently].

    In the [certain] BitchFight to come, I’m backing her.

  4. Isn’t the real issue here that the centralisation of power, rather than the Bishop v Credlin meme? Clearly Abbott is taking orders from an unelected official. But we really must ask, who is she taking her orders from? A cabal of Murdoch, Reinhardt and Packer?

    • Yep. The problem is policy has been coming straight out of the PMO without party consultation – (PPL) and who knows what else.

    • That doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the orders we take from the US. “Free”trade agreement being negotiated in secret to allow our American “friends” and their multinationals to fleece our economy dry, and not pay taxes while they are at it.

    • It seems some of the local oligarchs are scared that the LNP [over their heads] and the ALP up to their necks are taking orders from ALEC et al.

    • “Isn’t the real issue here that the centralisation of power, rather than the Bishop v Credlin meme? ”

      I think the issue is also that no-one other than Bishop has the balls to stand up to Abbott/Credlin, regardless of their gender. That shouldn’t be a surprise though when you look at Abbott’s Cabinet.

      • It’s another Abbott own goal. The reporting on the Bishop v Credlin stoush has focused on the tussle of centralised vs decentralised control. I can’t see where it’s been portrayed in the media as a misogynist beat up with the only prop missing is a wading pool full of baked beans.

        Bishop , like her or not, is simply the Libs star performer and the only one with enough guts to stand up to the piss poor effort coming out of central planning committee. Hell, you can’t expect any of those Davros clones to put up a fight and Abbott has done nothing to address the underlying issue except do what he does best and shout it down.

      • Without diminishing Bishop, the idea that she is ‘the’ star performer rather than ‘one of the star performers’ highlights the dearth of talent that is at least half the cause of this problem.

        And yes, it is a problem far from being quarantined within the LNP.

  5. @Labyrinth – are you seriously suggesting the Bishop is in cabinet because she is a woman? She is one of the best performers on either side of the house.

    @Statsailor – Bishop is “loathsome”??? She has been acquitting herself well and is preferable to anyone on the other side of parliament – especially that jellyback nobody Shorten. The public seems to agree……

    I agree with JohnR – It would be great to have conversations about the performance of parliamentarians without any reference to their gender.

    • Yes, for me she is. In part due to her pre-politcial activities. Did I say anything complimentary about Shorten somewhere?

      But I was really trying to say that despite my own personal prejudice against her, I still find her a better front bench performer than any of her colleagues bearing Y-chromosomes. Moreover, looking over the female LNP members who missed out on cabinet, seems like giving a few of them a go in cabinet could only help the government. Not just Kelly, either.

  6. Regarding Peta Credlin, the media has made a few allegations specifically regarding her influence over Abbott and her degree of “centralization and control”.

    Although I’m aware that a lot of this is subjective (although no more less real) and therefore difficult to pinpoint, does anyone know of any evidence or examples to support these allegations?

    • It may not be her, but the PMO has been making policy which the cabinet minister don’t know about, like Joe Hockey not knowing that the $7 medicare levy being scraped, Bishop not going to Lima (which she eventually overruled), and they are now running the Defense deparment after Senator Johnson made the remark about ‘South Australia not being able to build a canoe’.

    • Historically the chief of staff and the party director are really just political professionals who are in charge of getting elected (and re-elected). Most previous office holders have cared little for the politics of it all.

      To have a pair now actively running policy, overruling elected officials and public sector experts, is actually alarming.

  7. “the fiercest political warrior”

    What is it with these belligerent ‘will to power’ fruitcakes comparing everything to a battle, or a war?

    If you ever encounter a company staffed by these kinds of imbeciles, run a mile. Everything will be about maintaining power over others, projecting strength, never compromising, and so on. Of course, the company will be a failure.

    What would obviously make a toxic company is little remarked upon in government. Sad, really.

    • It’s all a game to them. Further their interests, fluff up the ego, then bask in their own self-satisfaction.

      Public service be damned!

    • It’s why things are getting worse. Everyone elected used to be in some combative employment. They just bring it with them.

  8. I think we need that GIF of Michael Jackson eating popcorn from Thriller to be the first post in this discussion.

  9. Several interesting points out of this

    – Peta Credlin never had any public exposure under Turnbull or Nelson (but both were in opposition at the time) Now she has been highlighted twice in 12 months. I dont think I’ve heard of another public servant getting this much media attention while still holding their position.

    – The Libs have an issue with accusations of misogyny and none of the males may want to speak out for fear of being called on it.

    – Bishop maybe the only one who can speak out on it because she’s female.

    – Abbott has major issues with the female voters. His speech this morning “if her name was P.E.T.E.R instead of P.E.T.A ….” could be a cynical effort to get the female voters back. However it’s guaranteed to back fire as he is basically accusing his staff of misogyny.

    Interesting times in the Liberal party.

    • Bubbley, What is going on at the LNG plant up there, am reading some disappointing news in the press.WW

      • The project is progressing and is a little behind schedule but within tolerances.

        There is some bat shit crazy stupidity thats getting some press at the moment. I’m not sure exactly which bit your refering too.

        A 1,000 concreters have finished up as their part of the project is over and the news paper is saying Inpex is cruel for laying them off before Christmas.

        Its ridiculous because it was only ever going to be a 12-18 month job and everyone knew it wasn’t going to last forever. Some of the concreters have apparently bought expensive houses (thats anything in Darwin) and now surprised that they cant pay the mortgages. They were mad for buying in the first place but now they are getting sympathy for a poor decision.

        My own thoughts on the Darwin market have been clear, its massively overpriced and while I love this town and have a healthy deposit I wont buy into the insanity. Its a bubble per capita that is only exceeded by Moranbah’s

        I’m interested in whats going to happen to Inpex when it starts production. The price of LNG was around $14 when the project was signed off, now its less than $5 I think. The official story is that it doesnt matter because 70% of the LNG is going straight to Tokyo and the Ithycus pipeline will carry the fuel out for other gas fields who will pay to use the pipe line.

        With the massive world wide drop in energy prices I did wonder if the Japanese might mothball the project but I guess the free gas for infrastructure deal from the NT gov made it to good to stop.

  10. This is perhaps the strongest indication yet of the implosion of Abbott’s government. Infighting, leaks, conflict being played out in the media.

    Where have we seen this before? It will end the same way as last time too.

  11. Here is the problem …

    ” He (Abbot) describes his chief of staff as ‘the fiercest political warrior I’ve ever worked with’. ”

    Abbot is on an ideological mission – not a mission to run the country for the betterment of it’s people ….

  12. The Federal Liberal Party is now a shambles, a chaotic miasma of virulent personal ambition, subterfuge, and disunity. They have burned their meagre goodwill within a year of government, their pretence to ‘adult’ government revealed as completely superficial. Abbott will not win another election. Credlin has to take responsibility for that. She has fundamentally failed in her role. They should both go.

  13. Abbott’s leadership again is too weak so his chief of staff has taken over who happens to belong to the New World Order Feminist movement, Bishop doesn’t! As such feminists prefer to communicate with power-games which comes straight from their intelligentsia social-construct model of development. I suggest the Credlin issue could be resolved by repeating Turnball’s previous action of demoting her as feminists need to be handled firmly and directly. Either way Abbott seems to have lost his authority.

    • I suggest the Credlin issue could be resolved by repeating Turnball’s previous action of demoting her as feminists need to be handled firmly and directly.

      By telling them to get back in the kitchen and make some pie, right ?

      • Ha Ha! I don’t think Sociology departments are related to anything biological, they are simply “models of constructed behaviour” which in Credlin’s situation has developed into power-games instead of working with (not against) people to solve problems. Either way Credlin doesn’t seem to be solving Abbott’s poor poling and leadership problems…..indeed she may be the cause of them.

      • Ha Ha! I don’t think Sociology departments are related to anything biological, they are simply “models of constructed behaviour” […]

        Indeed. The name “Sociology” does kind of give that secret away, though.

        […] which in Credlin’s situation has developed into power-games instead of working with (not against) people to solve problems. Either way Credlin doesn’t seem to be solving Abbott’s poor poling and leadership problems…..indeed she may be the cause of them.

        Yes, but that’s just standard narcissistic arsehole behaviour. Where’s the “feminist” come into it ?

  14. Lizards and Masons don’t have entire university departments such as sociology, devoted to their teachings since the 1970’s.
    Yes I’m in the Bishop camp because I’ve never needed any form of Government policy (as feminists require) to prove my worth!

    • That’s just what the lizard people want you to think!

      Besides which, we have universities polluted with Economics departments devoted to teaching unproven bunkum sociology dressed up as “kinda sciencey”. I’ll take the lizardy mason wommyns rights department over that any day.

      • Perhaps it’s simply misunderstanding between the “misandrist” (radical feminist) and the misogynist-male? However the joke was that Julia Gillard was more of a “misandrist” than Tony Abbott was a misogynist.