What Peta Knew
Seeing, but not recognising, your enemy
Peta Credlin should have known.
As the former chief of staff to former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and before that Deputy Chief of Staff to Malcolm Turnbull, she more than any one should have known who were numbered among Tony Abbott’s enemies.
The other day, Credlin wrote in The Daily Telegraph of Christopher Pyne’s “Black Hand” dinner boasting about – among other things – his having always been, together with George Brandis, in the Turnbull camp:
"Tony Abbott was brought down by an orchestrated campaign that was planned before he was even sworn in as PM. Despite being a trusted member of Abbott’s inner-sanctum (more fool Abbott), as Pyne boasted to the bar room of acolytes, he had always voted for Malcolm in every ballot that mattered. That the room cheered this disloyalty is one of the many reasons people have grown to despise modern politics".
Let me to add a footnote.
Hearing but unbelieving
A couple of months before the Coalition’s victory at the polls on 7 September 2013, I invited a friend to dinner. In the course of the evening, he told me a story.
He’d been up to Sydney and there he met with an old school friend and lawyer. The old school friend and lawyer was, apparently, an active Liberal Party member and wannabe parliamentary staffer. But, the friend declared, “We” are not going to Canberra if Abbott wins the election. “We” are holding back until Turnbull takes over as PM, then we’ll head for Canberra.
As I poured the wine, I dismissed the scenario in something like these words:
“Your mate is kidding himself. Abbott will win the coming elections handsomely and with that Turnbull’s fate will be sealed.”
And then, as if not entirely confident in my judgement, I added a reservation to the following effect:
“As much as I admire, John Howard, he did a great disservice to the Liberal Party and to Abbott’s leadership of it, by playing a role in persuading Turnbull not to abandon political life after his defeat in the party room on 1 December 2009.
“Be that as it may, Abbott will win the coming election and go on to serve, I reckon, two terms as Prime Minister. Unless he is exceedingly patient, Turnbull’s ambitions will come to nothing.”
How wrong can you be!
Clearly, I had had one too many. My guest had handed me – or so it proved – serious intelligence and I had dismissed it.
To this day I do not know who the Sydney lawyer was; in what branch of the Liberal Party he was active; and with whom he was connected within Sydney Liberal Party circles.
Perhaps he was a loud talking nobody who had just picked up on some party gossip. Or maybe he really had been deeply plugged into, say, the Michael Photios push or had some personal connections with Malcom Turnbull himself. My friend, even if he had answers to such further questions, would not have revealed more. But, ever since Abbott’s loss of the leadership, I have many times recalled (with embarrassment) the evening when this piece of intelligence landed in my lap.
This memory connects with a bit of recent news: the Carl Scully diary about which I’ll quote from the Sydney Morning Herald ’s report of 16 June:
'Mr Scully says he asked Mr Turnbull: “Malcolm, why on earth did you join the Libs and not the ALP?”
'According to Mr Scully, Mr Turnbull’s response was: “I could never succeed in the Labor party as it would be unforgiving towards someone who had been a successful businessman”.
Mr Scully says he was astonished by the response and asked: “Is that it. That’s why you chose to join the Libs?”
' “Yes it is,” Mr Turnbull reportedly said. “The ALP would just not tolerate someone who had succeeded in business”.
'Mr Scully says he then asked Mr Turnbull if he would enter NSW state politics with a view to becoming opposition leader and then premier.
'But Mr Turnbull reportedly responded: “Bob Carr and I are friends. I couldn’t do it to him”.
Some people have tried to make an issue of the probability that Malcolm Turnbull might have preferred to join the ALP. And why not? The Labor Party could lay claim to a long history of honourable service to Australia and Bob Carr stood fair square in that older, though by now, bygone tradition'.
The issue for Turnbull lies elsewhere, however: in the words “I couldn’t do it to him.”
The “it” in that sentence is rich with import. “It” strongly suggests that, if he, Malcom Turnbull, had joined, not just the ALP but any party, he would have to claw his way to the top over the corpses of present and future leaders until he could assume his rightful born-to-rule place on the mountain peak of power.
So Turnbull came to the Liberal Party, just as he would have signed on to the Labor Party, not to serve, but to exalt himself from the heights of leadership.
“I couldn’t do it to him” was not a maxim about right conduct in public life but a confession of naked, consciously willed determination to remove anyone in the way of Turnbull’s path to the top.
As I have occasionally observed to political people with leadership ambitions: the highest positions in the land are things that one should flee. Emulate Cincinnatus at his plough: cleave to it until higher authorities and the imperative of events should tear one from it.
Abbott, as he has more than once confessed, is no saint. But whatever temptations he might have experienced in the face of power and its allurements, the underlying given of his character is a straightforward desire to be of service to his country. This is why the destruction of his Prime Ministership was a tragedy.
Which brings me back to Peta Credlin: no-one should have known better than Credlin who Abbott’s enemies were and one wonders why, then, that people like Pyne and Brandis were in Abbott's inner circle of colleagues.