Almost any senior public servant or top political operative would have been an improvement on Credlin, who Abbott let rampage across the government. Hockey should have been replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, who was more economically articulate than Abbott or Hockey.
Turnbull was prepared to put aside his own ambition, temporarily, to save the Abbott government. He told other Liberals that he believed he and Abbott could have formed a partnership as successful as John Howard and Peter Costello, who were never close personally but were an effective team.
Abbott should have locked him in as the government’s chief economic salesman. If Turnbull succeeded he would have eventually come after Abbott’s job. Abbott might not have prevailed. At least he wouldn’t have been the shortest-serving prime minister since Billy McMahon.
Four and a half months after Abbott was removed from power, we’re still trying as a nation to understand what happened, why Abbott failed, and what it says about Australian politics. One thing is clear: Abbott’s downfall was more than a personal failure. It was an indictment of the way in which power can be exercised by a prime minister and his proxies.
Abbott made two fundamental management mistakes: he limited internal democracy in the government and Liberal Party by curtailing alternate sources of power; and he was too loyal to individuals.
Under Abbott, Credlin and her husband, Liberal headquarters director Brian Loughnane, became the wonder twins of the Liberal Party. They had huge power and were happy to exercise it.
Sometimes that power was exercised for petty purposes, like when Credlin took her personal assistant on an official trip to Afghanistan and forced the Defence Minister to choose between taking a policy adviser or a press secretary.
Other times the issues were more profound. Liberal Party treasurer Philip Higginson was told to be quiet and pushed out when he challenged Loughnane’s determination to keep details of the party’s finances secret. Higginson was so concerned by what could be going on that he threatened to commission a forensic audit – and regrets now that he didn’t.
Abbott had a strangely intense loyalty to his closest allies, and an unfortunate indifference to what they were doing to others. There is a long trail of bitter and bruised former friends and colleagues of Abbott who say they suffered at Credlin’s bloody hands.
It became clear to many Liberal MPs after the Coalition’s first budget that Hockey, despite his amiability, couldn’t convince Australians to take the tough economic medicine needed to balance the budget. The more he spoke, the less credibility he had. Even some of his staff thought he was a little lazy.
Yet, like a lost World War II Japanese fighter who refuses to surrender, Abbott stuck by Hockey and Credlin until the leadership was taken from him by an exhausted and demoralised party.
For a strange guy, Abbott’s self-destructive loyalty is one of his most mysterious qualities. Was he psychologically incapable of replacing Hockey and Credlin because he knew in his heart that he was more culpable for the government’s problems than them? Did he think Australians would respect him less?
Turnbull is avoiding Abbott’s managerial missteps. He hired a technocrat to run his office rather than a political cougar. He made Howard’s confidant, Arthur Sinodinos, cabinet secretary, a job now probably the most pivotal in the government apart from the prime minister.
For this position, Credlin chose a public relations guy working in China – someone dependent on her patronage. Turnbull chose a man with a substantial political base of his own, who is capable of standing up to anyone in cabinet, including the prime minister.
Sinodinos, despite his poor judgment getting involved in a possibly corrupt Sydney water company, should be the government’s bedrock. Whereas Credlin facilitated Abbott’s poor political judgment by steamrolling internal opposition, Sinodinos’ focus will be to stop political mistakes before they happen.
When it comes to avoiding the perils of personal loyalty, anyone who has worked with Turnbull in business will tell you that won’t be a problem he will struggle with.
Aaron Patrick is deputy editor (print) and author of Credlin & Co., How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself.