It was a book on my “to read” list for six months and when I finally did get around to reading Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin, it felt like reading ancient history. Of course, it is barely 15 months since the key event of the book, the overthrow of Prime Minister Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull, in a fashion reminiscent of palace coups of Labor, behaviour the Liberals were so desperate not to be tainted with. But Abbott’s leadership was so terminal in 2015 the party had little option if they didn’t want electoral annihilation in 2016, a point brought out well in Savva’s book.
Though I admire Savva as an independent-ish figure of the right, I wasn’t immediately taken in by the book. The first few pages were endless name dropping, then the first few chapters were endless bitchiness about Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin. There was no doubting Credlin’s hold over Abbott but surely a chief of staff could not hold a nation to ransom in the way Credlin allegedly did? Akin to Kevin Rudd’s office when he was in power, things went into the inbox and never came out, and the focus was on micromanagement of trivial issues at the expense of more substantive issues.
The difference was that in 2009 the roadblock and the micromanager was Rudd himself whereas in 2014 Abbott had delegated those functions, and nearly all other functions to Peta Credlin. The hold she had on him, if Savva is to be believed, was immense, and Abbott was immune to all advice on the topic, even when close advisors told him of the damage caused by the perception of an affair between the two. Abbott’s overwhelming preoccupation, said Savva, was the wellbeing of Credlin and transferred all his power to her, which she used ruthlessly.
Savva skirts (a term I use advisedly) the issue of feminism even when she quotes Credlin telling Australian Women’s Weekly “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong”. Why was it Credlin’s fault that the wheels of government fell off, given she was unelected? Was it her fault, that Abbott’s first cabinet contained one woman, foreign minister Julie Bishop (a cartoon of the time added “and the good news is that she will be out of the country most of the time”), was it Credlin’s fault that Abbott ostracised Bishop as a deputy leader who owed nothing to him or made stupid “captain’s calls” like knighting Prince Phillip and making Bronwyn Bishop speaker, and was it Credlin’s fault Abbott underestimated the numbers game Turnbull was playing that eventually unseated him (them?) in September 2015?
When Savva finally gets over talking about Credlin, and then the digression about her own stint in politics as a policy adviser for Peter Costello, the book becomes a genuine page turner as she dissects the two spills of 2015. Savva had extraordinary access to Liberal powerbrokers most of whom were happy to go on the record about the problems of the day. The February 2015 spill came too early for Turnbull to show his hand, but Abbott was fatally weakened by only narrowing beating “an empty chair” in the ballot.
After that he had six months to turn things around but Abbott had only one modus operandi. Credlin was supposed to take a lower profile after the spill but remained a screen between him and the backbenchers he relied on for support. When the Bronwyn Bishop helicopter scandal broke, Abbott dithered and let it dominate the news for 18 days before finally throwing Bishop to the wolves after all the damage was done, losing a key ally in the process (her ultimate revenge was to vote for Turnbull in the ballot).
With polls showing a government wipeout in August,the party room was set for another move against the apparently hapless prime minister. Turnbull and his allies counted the numbers and believed the time was finally right to move. Even Abbott hardliners like Peter Dutton had enough and the only questions remaining was what would Julie Bishop do, and whether to move before or after the by-election for Canning in WA (where the Libs were running star candidate former SAS-commando Andrew Hastie). The WA campaign was run on strictly local lines with Abbott kept out of the picture and in the end Turnbull did not wait for it.
As for Julie Bishop, she reserved her support almost to the end and even told Turnbull that as deputy she would vote for the leader, as she had done in every ballot since 2007. But when Abbott confronted Bishop he was convinced she was in the coup and he neglected to ask her who she would vote for. When Abbott panicked and declared his position open, he made a mistake by also declaring the deputy leader position vacant, opening the way for Bishop to change her mind and vote for Turnbull. Abbott also fluffed his lines with Scott Morrison offering him the Treasury at the last minute while also giving assurances to Joe Hockey his job was safe. Morrison rightly saw this as untenable.
After the inevitable defeat, Abbott did not take it well. He was “angry, bitter and vengeful.” But rather than blame Turnbull (or better still, himself) he blamed Bishop and Morrison for their “perfidy”. Abbott does not appear to have absorbed the lessons of his defeat though he harbours hope of a second shot at government. Like Rudd he has suffered Relevance Deprivation Syndrome (of recent PMs only Julia Gillard appears immune) and he remains in parliament as a lonely outsider. Turnbull may suffer his own “30 bad Newspolls” and be turfed, but when he does it will be a Morrison or a Christian Porter looming at the gates, not an Abbott – with or without Peta Credlin. The best thing that be said for the coup is that it ended the Libs holier-than-thou pretense that those kinds of sordid power games were the exclusive preserve of Labor.