Object of scorn: what if Peta was Peter instead?

Object of scorn: what if Peta was Peter instead?

A woman at the heart of power is seen as a divisive conspirator when it's her boss who's to blame for abandoning proper process.

I'm not even going to bother with the earnest throat-clearing, the "who really cares if Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin were having an affair ... the real issue was his policies, increasingly out of step with mainstream opinion ... blah, blah". Of course we bloody care – hence the salacious headlines sprung from former Liberal staffer and journalist Niki Savva's, Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government.

But while we're all students of human frailty (read suckers for gossip) bigger themes emerge from the latest revelations about the contentious relationship between the former prime minister and his chief of staff. For one, the book adds to the portrait of a fallen leader who remains on the scene – a Shakespearian figure, defending his legacy and causing the current Prime Minister to lose his footing in the treacherous terrain between pragmatism and ideology.

Illustration: John Spooner

Illustration: John Spooner

And I sense in the dynamic between Abbott, Credlin and their colleagues a fraught scenario that plays out in workplaces beyond Canberra, and will continue to do so for as long as men have a stranglehold on power.

That scenario entails something like this: A company or institution top-heavy with men, which is most companies and institutions. A place roiling with internal politics and instability, which is most places. A male boss forging an alliance with a female staffer, who secures what others regard as special privileges and access. She leapfrogs to promotion. Or starts throwing her weight around. (Even before Savva's book, we knew about Credlin's involvement in cabinet meetings and her earlier heckling from the adviser's box during question time.)

Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin's close relationship upset many close to power in the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin's close relationship upset many close to power in the Abbott government.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

When resentful co-workers finally get up the courage to confront the boss, telling him she's damaging morale and even the bottom line, he stands by his woman. And if the woman in question happens to be of childbearing age that's enough to seed rumours the boss is ... I'm thinking of the memorable term uttered on the ABC's Four Corners by the former Fair Work Commission vice-president Michael Lawler, when he described how others viewed his relationship with the disgraced former unionist Kathy Jackson.

Thus, Liberal MP Concetta Fierravanti-Wells' warning to Abbott a year ago that "rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff ... and you need to deal with it", has a familiar ring to it. The same line – the reference to "chief of staff" replaced with PA, EA, junior partner, counsel, whatever – is said behind closed doors to bosses in law firms, newsrooms, corporations, public service departments. Sometimes the internal discontent leaks to the outside world, and we all hear about it. In this instance the workplace happens to be in the business of power.

In this instance, evidence of an affair is basically zilch, and the denials from both parties absolute.

But as Savva has pointed out, whether there was indeed an affair is irrelevant. I'm reminded of a quote from Frank Underwood, the creepy anti-hero politician in the TV series House of Cards: "A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power."

The accusation of an affair is often a proxy or metaphor for a relationship perceived as cosy and conspiratorial, which others feel unable to penetrate. Even Credlin's response to the book hints at the problem. In a piece in The Australian on Tuesday she describes long days in the Prime Minister's office, "doing my part to stop the boats, repeal the carbon tax and respond to growing terrorism threats". Not only is she still fighting the last election, but you could be forgiven for thinking she was herself elected to the task.

And for this apparent enmeshment, the blame must lie with Abbott – and his supporters and the parliamentary Liberals who, like Labor before them, had acquiesced in the trashing of proper process until it was too late.

Abbott brought a misplaced chivalry to his dealings with Credlin; in December 2014 he even played the feminist card, accusing colleagues of attacking her because of her gender. He probably had a point. But the fact she's a household name shows how much his excessive patronage harmed her.

He allowed a prime ministerial chief of staff to be exposed to the public gaze when the position demands discretion and invisibility. He persisted in placing her in the line of fire from colleagues. For all his hyper-masculine image, Abbott hid behind the skirt of the "fiercest political warrior" he'd ever worked with.

Of course, as she liked to remind him, he owed her a great deal. (And, being the wife of the Liberal's federal director, she was better connected than most.) Before the 2013 election she reportedly yelled expletives to him on the phone, saying he'd be nothing without her. The episode feels almost familial; say, showbiz mum dressing down her child star. Ditto the scene where she's feeding him food off her plate – that this was done in public suggests an intimacy more maternal than sexual.

And I wonder: would Abbott have tolerated a you'd-be-nowhere-without-me stance from a male chief of staff? Assuming what Savva reports is accurate, would Abbott have allowed a Peter Credlin to be the gatekeeper from hell, banning meetings with foreign leaders and vetting his wife's engagements?

My admittedly unscientific observations of alpha males in the wild, show that such men, entirely rationally when you consider the statistics, usually perceive other men as a threat, as competitors on the make. Whereas they're more inclined to see women as faithful handmaidens, loyal offsiders, fierce protectors.

And that's why I see in Abbott and Credlin a modern fable in which the woman finds herself savaged.

Julie Szego is a Fairfax columnist, author and freelance journalist.

Julie Szego

Julie Szego is an author and freelance journalist.

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