Journalist Peter Hartcher has written an analysis of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s downfall, titled Shirtfronted, and published in five episodes in the Fairfax press this week.
Episode two is all about Peta. Credlin, that is, Abbott’s controversial former chief of staff, who is, practically universally it appears, credited with contributing in a rather spectacular manner to his downfall.
Hartcher describes the relationship between Abbott and Credlin as “co-dependent,”citing the former PM’s “agitation” when separated from Credlin in the most ordinary of ways, such as having to travel in separate cars, or not having her arrive as expected out of a lift. These type of anxieties are more usually associated with that stage of infancy when the baby is becoming aware that its mother is a separate entity and not an extension of its own being, and every separation and absence is regarded by the infant as a catastrophic abandonment of the self that provokes intolerable anxiety.
So I guess Hartcher’s use of the clinical term “co-dependent” is appropriate in the circumstances. It certainly sounds like a psychologically mangled union, and one wonders how Abbott’s wife, Margie, tolerates her husband’s intense and very public emotional involvement with another woman. As another of the symptoms of co-dependency is tolerating and thus enabling a partner’s destructive and self-destructive behaviours, maybe the diagnosis extends to the marriage as well.
Be that as it may, I am conflicted about the criticisms directed towards Credlin by the LNP, journalists and commentators, not because I’ve read anything about Ms Credlin that causes me to feel sympathy for her, or empathy, but because it is impossible to tell in a situation such as this how much of that criticism is to do with her actions, and how much is fuelled by sexism and anti-woman attitudes and resentments. There’s a cohort of males (supported by co-dependent females) who tend to blame women simply because we exist, with our breasts and our vaginas and our sexuality, not to mention our opinions.
This cohort tends to be conservative, religious, controlling, and threatened by anyone who is not them, and many are to be found in political circles as well as in the fourth estate. So while Peta Credlin has by all accounts behaved offensively on many occasions to many people, one has to remember who is narrating events.
Abbott’s extraordinary protectiveness towards Credlin seems to indicate he put her well-being before his own, and that of his party. She did/does indeed have excessive control over his emotions and his psychology, causing him to blind himself to the consequences of his bizarre loyalty to her.
His need of her, powerful enough to cause him to put at risk the job he’d craved for years, certainly sounds self-destructive, and it must have been particularly galling for his ministers to understand that in any fight, he’d be on Peta’s side, not theirs. You’re just a staffer, Credlin is reminded by Eric Abetz after a rather tumultuous episode, at which Abbott was present. She’ll apologise in her own way, the PM told Abetz, who apparently never noticed if she did.
Then there’s the tearful tantrum Credlin threw over The Australian’s journalist Nikki Savva’s criticism of her, when both she and Abbott attempted to have Savva sacked as retribution. “I don’t have to put up with this shit!” Credlin reportedly howled.
Personally, I think Abbott would have gone with or without Credlin’s influence, however, their relationship can’t have helped his cause, internally or in the public sphere. What the Credlin factor actually demonstrates is Abbott’s weakness of character: the leader of a country isn’t in the job to prioritise his personal emotional and psychological cravings over the welfare of his party and his country. Abbott did just that, making him even more dangerously untrustworthy all round than he was already.
Abbott’s main concern was always Abbott, and will remain so. Even his protection of Credlin was essentially about himself: he needed her, and had to keep her by his side in order for him to function.
Hopefully, none of this will concern us again to any great extent. He was a most unsuitable leader, who made his personal needs and bizarre ideology central to policy-making, not the needs of the country and its people.
Any PM who can’t stand on his own two feet, as Abbott clearly could not, is bad for the country he leads, and about as far from being adult as anyone can be.
The personal is still and always will be political. Yet we almost always underestimate its influence, to our cost.