Peta PM? Oh please


“The most intriguing news of the weekend was the report that Peta Credlin is being touted as a possible future Liberal Party MP. Why stop there? Why not Peta for PM?” writes Rowan Dean in “The Courier Mail”. Let me count the ways.

We are constantly told by her detractors that Credlin was some kind of foul-mouthed, bossy, bullying, aggressive, take-no-prisoners type of gal when she was running Tony Abbott’s office and therefore she (and he) had to go.

The logic of that always escaped me – surely those are precisely the qualities you need in someone doing that job? Most CEOs would kill for someone of her ability as their right-hand man or woman. Not for the Liberal Party bed-wetters, however, who took great umbrage at the fact that she was “too controlling”.

Except that politics is not business and the Prime Minister is not a CEO. I’m not an expert in the matters of corporate leadership and management – for all I know, companies really need “foul-mouthed, bossy, bullying, aggressive, take-no-prisoners” managers. I’m pretty sure that political offices don’t.

A chief of staff is an employee, even the prime minister’s chief of staff. All political staff are curious hybrids; they are public servants who are allowed to be political in the service of a particular employer rather than ostensibly unbiased and apolitical in the employ of a government department or agency. Whatever their egos might tell them, they are simply not on the same level as parliamentarians, who are first preselected by their parties and then elected by voters of their district or their whole state.

The problem with Credlin was that she really thought herself as the PM’s “right-hand woman”. In reality, that position belongs to the Deputy Prime Minister and/or Deputy Leader. Credlin’s self-perception elevated her to being the Number 2 in the government, above all the Coalition members and senators, including the Cabinet Ministers. Hence her insistence on attending Cabinet meeting and her extensive role in micromanaging every aspect of the government’s work, from policy to administrative matters, like choosing Ministers’ staff. In her own mind, Credlin probably saw herself as “her master’s voice”, or to borrow a Catholic analogy for the sake of Tony Abbott, Christ’s representative on Earth; a sort of a Popess dealing with the Liberal Party “broad church” on behalf of her ethereal boss. That in itself would have been the wrong interpretation of her job, but to compound the problem, Credlin was also happy to be a political player herself, choosing favourites, playing internal games, and pursuing her own agendas. That Tony allowed her to do it, in turn speaks unfavourably about his own leadership and management skills or lack thereof, and goes a long way to explain his downfall.

Being the PM’s chief of staff, Credlin was in reality the boss and the manager to the two dozen or so advisers and admin staff working in the PM’s office, as well as being the PM’s principal adviser. Instead, she thought she was everyone’s boss – from the Deputy Leader down to a lowly electorate officer in the suburbs. Let me repeat again: politics is not business, and the government (as well as the opposition) are not corporations with a hierarchical management structure. At the risk of sounding romantic about politics, while you could technically say that a Liberal Prime Minister is a Liberal backbencher’s boss, the backbencher’s real boss are the people of his or her electorate or state who elected him or her. That’s what democracy and the representative politics are about. It is true that the power structure in parliament resembles a pyramid, with the PM on top, followed by the Cabinet Ministers, the Outer Ministry, Parliamentary Secretaries (or Assistant Ministers) and the backbench, but there are no political staffers and advisers in that pyramid – they are the slaves who build the pyramid.

Dean continues:

As with her boss’s so-called outrageous flaws (raw onion, winking etc), it is obvious that Credlin’s “sins” were grossly overinflated. The biggest “smear” was that she “called the shots”. The sneering Abbott-haters implied that it was Credlin, not Abbott, who was running the government. And that was supposed to be an insult? Sounds like the ultimate compliment to me.

Repeat after me: it’s not the PM’s chief of staff’s job to run the government. It’s the job of elected parliamentarians, not an unelected staffer, to do so. At best, the PM’s COS can be considered the (mother) superior of all the political staff, but even then in the sense of being the most senior rather than the boss, since staff answer directly to their parliamentarian employers, not to the PMO. The PM’s COS is certainly not in charge of parliamentarians. The right, which is particularly fond of separation of powers, should be mindful of that. In the government, it’s the Prime Minister in consultation, or more likely with the direction of the Cabinet or the Party Room, who “calls the shots”. If Abbott wasn’t running the government, what was he actually doing as the Prime Minister?

I have no doubt that Credlin is a very intelligent woman of many talents and gifts, but during her stint in the PMO she has misunderstood her role and her position, and consequently has regularly overstepped the bounds. The Prime Ministership is not Trinitarian – there is no PM the Father, the Daughter and the Holy Ghost of the Federal Director. As I said earlier, it is not even a Papacy. All good chiefs of staff in the past, on both sides of politics, knew that very well, and were thus able to do their job unobtrusively, in the background and out of sight, and largely retaining everyone’s respect.

For all I know, Peta Credlin might be able to roll Kelly O’Dwyer and get preselected as the new member for Higgins, with or without the aid of mysterious millionaires. Or she might score another seat elsewhere. There is one thing, however, stopping her from being a Liberal Prime Minister: it’s Peta Credlin. If she enters the parliament at the next election, she will be arguably the most controversial and the most hated MP – and that’s by her own side. The majority of the Party Room – the people who choose the Prime Minister – remember what she has done to the Abbott government and what she has done to so many of them directly and personally. Politicians have long memories. It is not just “bed-wetters”; even the majority of MPs and Senators who supported Abbott until the bitter end thought Credlin was part of the problem and should have had decency to go once she became an issue, a distraction, and a handicap for the man whom she served.

Peta for PM? Nope, but maybe Peta for CEO. Though preferably not any company I work for.