Yesterday, many people saw the article by Samantha Maiden in all the metropolitan Sunday News Limited papers about Peta Credlin, Abbott’s Chief of Staff, speaking of how nice her boss was. The criticisms were swift and brutal, as one can expect. The “MSM are Biased – Giving Abbott a Free Kick – Ashby Inquiry Now!” people were fast to scream across the day. As were the fact checkers, who did make some salient points. It is a curious article indeed and worth a deconstruction – if only to see how journalists craft a narrative. Maiden is a skilled writer, in that she emulates the styles she sees as important. This one shows that she could dash off an article in Women’s Day, New Idea or the Women’s Weekly very easily. It also shows, however, that Maiden is also revealing and possibly undermining Abbott’s obvious attempts to spin himself as Human Being and Friend to Women. The original article in italics, my comments in plain.
PETA Credlin knows the questions female voters have about electing Tony Abbott as prime minister.
Immediately, we understand the possible focus of this article – that female voters are the issue for Tony Abbott and this perception of Tony needs to be addressed.
As his female chief of staff, she occasionally gets pulled aside at functions, and her inquisitors all want to know the same thing.
I did wonder at this point if a male chief of staff would be asked the same question. However, as gendered language is at the core of this piece, that is probably an irrelevant question.
“What’s he like to work for as a woman? Isn’t he tough on women’s issues?”
“Isn’t he anti-abortion?”
“Isn’t he weird on contraception? What would he really do if he was the prime minister?”
But she knows all the questions already, since, not so long ago, Credlin asked them herself.
Right here, it’s a touch like a FAQ section on a website or the beginning of a “Let’s See Where Your Fridge is Made” video at this stage rather than a no holds barred interview with an important political figure. We are about to get the answers to these Dorothy Dixers.
And then last year, she ended up learning more than she ever expected to about what Tony Abbott really thinks about all of these difficult, complex issues when she endured the personal heartbreak of multiple rounds of IVF treatment and no baby.
That’s when Abbott surprised even her – by offering to keep her secrets and help store her fertility drugs in his office bar fridge.
The language has switched here to one often sees in weekly women’s magazines or that one sees in Mamamia from time to time. The personal anecdote mixed with personal tragedy. The point here is to show Tony Abbott is human – “Human Being Tony”. It’s interesting that IVF isn’t entirely consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church – but also, it is meant to show that Tony Abbott is human. Though, really, offering a fridge in that workplace context is what a lot of people would do, even opponents of IVF, I would have thought.
Credlin, 41, a Catholic, is also pro-choice on abortion. She’s married to Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane, who will run Abbott’s campaign for The Lodge – a true power couple in Canberra.
Intensely private, she has never given an on-the-record interview – until recently.
But she attracts attention, as you do when you’re a six foot-tall glamazon with long brown hair in a leopard-print dress.
Power Couple. Glamazon. Back to that women’s magazine language again. (An open question – how many people actually say the expression “power couple” out loud? Also, “campaign for the Lodge” – it’s a campaign for his party to be in government. Another annoyingly simplistic expression.) “Catholic and pro choice” is something that is frequently the case for Catholics (Each day on Twitter I read atheist opponents of the Catholic Church screaming “No, George Pell, Pope, Evil Church says No to Choice and all the followers are sheeple”). This is a point left hanging in the air at this point, but will become very crucial later on. But of this whole section, the “intensely private” line stuck with me – I can’t recall the Chief of Staff for any political leader giving an interview willingly. I kept picturing Malcolm Tucker giving such an interview. These people are usually supposed to keep in the shadows, passing around dirt files and the like.
This felt as though we, as the audience, should be grateful for being allowed entry into this private world of the staffer. Even Maiden herself seems a touch in awe that she was allowed to enter. It’s a often used technique used to engage the reader – and a good one The cynic would say that this is opened door is part of a wider political strategy of softening Abbott’s image. I’m a cynic – but I’m not the only one, as the article shows later.
In a previous incarnation as a public relations executive for Victoria Racing, she turned heads by wearing giant hats. She would make a formidable politician and one day she most probably will.
It’s also unusual for a COS to go into politics themselves*. (Edit – I have been told by Kimbo Ramplin that indeed many CsOS go into politics – maybe it really is a stepping stone here). Perhaps this is a major part of Credlin’s agreement to do this piece (Maiden stated on Twitter that she approached Credlin, not the other way around).
After working for Liberal leaders Brendan Nelson as an adviser and then Malcolm Turnbull as his deputy chief of staff, Credlin took the surprise election of Abbott as Liberal leader in 2009 as a green light to exit politics and return to Melbourne to practise law. But Abbott urged her to stay.
Another interesting point made – to show that Credlin, like apparently the women of Australia, took one look at Tony Abbott and said “ugh”. And so the story unfolds of how she was made to judge him less harshly into the future… *cue harp music*
Could she work for a man who described Australia’s abortion rate as an unutterable shame? Over a coffee in Canberra last Sunday, Credlin tells Agenda she didn’t think she could. So, early in 2010, she told him it was a big reason why she wouldn’t stick around.
The difficulty with this part of the story is that if Credlin was actually serious about going, she probably would have just gone. The story here shifts a touch into sounding a bit like an episode of The West Wing. It is also here we see the real shift in emphasis – intending to show that Abbott isn’t a hardened ideologue that doesn’t allow for change in his dogmatic ways.
“Look, there was this elephant in the room, which was Tony and women’s issues,” Credlin says.
She wasn’t worried about his personal dealings with women – Abbott had surprised her with his warmth. Plus, he had always had female chiefs of staff.
The issue was his views on abortion, IVF and contraception. Credlin had been on the opposite side to Abbott during the RU486 abortion drug debate when she worked for former Senate leader Robert Hill. The original decision was about whether Abbott should be able to maintain his ministerial powers to veto the drug. Some argued he was unqualified on the grounds of his Catholicism.
“While it started out as an issue of ministerial authority, it became code for so much more,” she says.
And here we go, the West Wing scene.
Credlin says she told Abbott: “I will just never agree with you on abortion.”
Abbott asked: “Well, what do you think my position on abortion is?”
“And I said, ‘Well, I think you are opposed to it, and you would like to see it restricted’. And he said, ‘Well, that’s just bullshit. I believe it should be safe, legal and rare’.”
Abbott was using the terminology of US President Bill Clinton. He confirmed he did have a problem with “the quantum”, the number of abortions in Australia, and he didn’t back away from that. But crucially, he did not want to ban or restrict access.
Safe, legal and rare. Taking a line from a Democrat like Clinton is clever politics, even if it does position him away from Catholic teaching. It is startling that he has never said this publicly, especially in 2010 – but maybe his strategists didn’t think it was important for people to see how Abbott adjusts his weathervane to suit his audience – as he may have done on this occasion.
This is where “Human Being” Tony is quite different from the self-described “Gospel Tony”. Gospel Tony is the one who wrote this speech in 2004 about the “Moral Failings” that are contained in the abortion rate. He may have acknowledged his opinion to Credlin that Australia has too many abortions. However, to say it should be legal, but is also evidence of our moral failing as a nation is a curious set of values to hold at once. It is possible to be such – look at Gillard’s opposition to marriage equality, for example – but Abbott’s speech is quite stark at negative image he cast about abortion – for example in this line
“Even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year”.
Destroy is not a word used by a convinced supporter of abortion. It is the language of the anti-choice ideologues. Then there’s this line:
“When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boatpeople, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion, which is”.
Abortion, to Gospel Tony is a black and white issue – not a morally complex one at all. And people wonder why he may have an issue with women “misunderstanding” what he says. There’s little to misunderstand with “abortion is a morally black and white issue”. Again, this fairly hardline view could be seen to be at odds with the Human Being Tony who tells his potential COS that it should be “legal, safe and rare” forever. The speech also showed that in 2004, the repetition of the ugliest image was his favoured technique of persuasion:
“Even so, as a measure of the moral health of our society, 100,000 terminated babies is a statistic that offers no comfort at all”.
This speech – and its context, becomes important later on, so I will return to it. Back to the Glamazonian Jungle…
“And I agree with that myself. No woman wants to think it’s a decision that’s not taken carefully and in a considered way, and I can’t see that for the vast majority of women it wouldn’t be. I think it’s one of the toughest decisions a woman can make,” Credlin says.
“And I think most women would want to hope that your sister or your friend or yourself would have choices before it got to that point.”
Doesn’t seem like a black and white moral decision right here.
In many ways, Credlin’s conversation with Abbott as she wrestled with working for him is similar to many of the questions women have as they weigh up voting for him at the next election.
Maiden is stating the obvious here, revealing the point of the article, that is, the softening of Tony – Credlin’s first opinion of Abbott, and then her changed opinion, should be the model for other women reading the article. In other words, “Peta Credlin changed her mind about Tony Abbott, why can’t you?” Then comes the killer paragraph.
It’s a political fault line Julia Gillard tapped into in her speech to parliament accusing him of misogyny – a hatred of women – and attacking Abbott for describing abortion as an “easy way out” (he didn’t actually say that, as it turns out). Other senior ALP women have returned to the theme, suggesting it is showing up in party polling.
Accusing. Hatred. This must be the bit where Gillard enters. The villain with the poison apple, accusing Abbott of the crime of saying abortion was the “easy way out” – even though he didn’t say it. Truth was, he did. In the 2004 speech.
“To a pregnant 14-year-old struggling to grasp what’s happening, for example, example, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations. What seems to be considered far less often is avoiding situations where difficult choices might arise”.
This was leapt upon with great speed by the Twitter fact checkers, claiming that Maiden was lazy, she could have found this out with a Google search. Maiden, in her Twitter responses to this accusation, said that she had already read this speech and that the context was important.
The Year 7 Comprehension line is a touch patronising – but I think her point here is that the “abortion is the easy way out” line has been taken out context. Abbott was saying that he believed that is the way many women perceive abortion. It is a blinkered, male-centric way of guessing the way some women see abortion – going back to that black and white thing – but he is not saying in a blanket fashion that “abortion is the easy way out” in that quote. The speech is more nuanced than that – Maiden is right. Though, not especially sensitive or understanding of the individual contexts of women involved. It’s a political paternalism, assuming what women feel without actually talking to a range of them.
Where she is wrong, however, is in the way she expressed the concept in the article. “he didn’t actually say that, as it turns out” probably should have rewritten along the lines of “the line about abortions has been taken out of context” or “he didn’t actually mean that all abortions are the easy way out” or words to that effect. The original comments directed to Maiden weren’t made by people who failed Year 7 Comprehension. But they did fail to respond successfully to her point that the “easy way out” line wasn’t placed in its proper context. A little bit like the “there will be no carbon tax in a government I lead” line. Sometimes, when responding to experienced writers like Maiden, people need to be a little less shouty and one note (I have learnt this lesson after being a little like that myself once upon a time). Anyway, back to the jungle…
Credlin kept ticking off her concerns during her conversation with Abbott that day in 2010. “I also heard you are against contraception,” she said. Abbott replied this was “ridiculous” as he was the father of teenage girls.
What does this line mean? That fathers of teenage girls have to automatically favour contraception? That’s not really an answer and it raises more questions about Abbott’s views.
“And I said, ‘The last one is all that kerfuffle about IVF. I can’t say at my age I might not need it. How could you be against IVF?’ “
It was a remark that would prove to be prophetic.
Abbott insisted this was wrong too: “I am not against IVF, I am passionate for IVF. Anything that helps families is a good thing, it’s not a bad thing.” Credlin left the conversation surprised that Abbott’s position on IVF, abortion and contraception wasn’t as black and white as she had assumed. Why did she think otherwise? A big reason is Abbott’s own words.
This view, while at odds with Catholic teaching, is interesting and illustrative perhaps of the nature of Abbott’s political life, having to compromise and agree with the different people you meet. Also interesting is that the “Human Being” Tony we are shown isn’t as “black and white” in person as he appears to be when he’s Gospel Tony. I can’t recall an Abbott speech where he has publicly backed IVF, abortion and contraception. Or perhaps someone could google that one. Interestingly, Maiden then uses Gospel Tony phrases in order to show the apparent contradiction between the two Tonys.
“We have a bizarre double standard; a bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant woman’s baby is guilty of murder, but a woman who aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice,” Abbott told parliament in 2005.
“I want to make it clear that I do not judge or condemn any woman who has had an abortion, but every abortion is a tragedy and up to 100,000 abortions a year is this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame.”
In 2005, the Howard government floated a plan to restrict the number of IVF cycles for women over the age of 42 when Abbott was health minister. Asked about the debate in 2009, Abbott offered these words to describe his reflections on the controversy that followed: “It [the proposal] fell foul of the ‘I’m over 40 and I need my baby’ brigade,” Abbott said.
Not exactly the remarks of a sensitive new-age guy.
Could it be that, during their fateful conversation, Abbott was simply telling Credlin what she wanted to hear?
She insists this is not the case.
“I think it is important that people, especially women, hear the truth about Tony Abbott, and not just the myths,” she says.
Not a single comment made in response to the language or content of the Abbott words are made by Credlin. “It’s important for women to hear the truth” is undermined by the fact Credlin doesn’t respond to the truth, as articulated in the quotations used by Maiden. It does undermine the credibility of her pleading for people to understand. It’s also odd for Credlin to be talking about “myths” when Maiden has given her actual words, not myths.
This is why I think Maiden’s piece isn’t exactly the 100% piece of biased puffery that people are making it out to be. In this part of the article, the contradictions are clear and Credlin is hung out to dry a bit by her own lack of response to the Abbott quotations. This can also be supported by Maiden’s comments about the way the strategists have been attempting to create a “Human Being” Tony.
As the next federal election looms, Team Abbott has wheeled out a succession of women to endorse his female-friendly credentials to assure the voting public he’s not the anti-woman ogre they were led to believe.
The most powerful intervention was naturally his wife Margie Abbott and his daughters. Then there’s his sister Christine Foster, who has spoken of her brother’s supportive embrace when she came out as a lesbian.
Credlin’s decision to speak out publicly as his chief of staff is highly unusual.
The cynic comes out – the line about the “highly unusual” appearance shows that Maiden is putting this whole Credlin piece in the wider context of the selling of Abbott – hinting that it’s nothing more than just spin. The following paragraph does little to counter this idea that it’s spin – it’s a “deep loyalty to Abbott” that is doing this.
Yet her candour is not only motivated by a deep loyalty to Abbott and a desire for voters to know the truth about what Abbott would do as prime minister on reproductive health issues, she is also ready to talk about her own painful experience of infertility, in which she tried, and, in her own words, failed to fall pregnant after back-to-back cycles of drugs, egg collections and IVF treatments.
“This is a really important election and you can’t leave these things unsaid if they need to be addressed.”
Maiden then goes back into New Idea mode (or Marie Claire mode, perhaps).
Credlin agreed to a brief question-and-answer session with the glossy Marie Claire magazine late last year. But her candid response, when asked about her toughest day at work, shocked even the press secretary from Abbott’s office sent along to chaperone the interaction.
The magazine will publish the piece on Wednesday.
“There was a grubby joke told about me at a union event attended by some Labor MPs in Canberra. I didn’t hear about it until the next day,” Credlin told the magazine.
“The joke didn’t faze me – politics is tough – but on that day I had come to the office straight from hospital after my fifth failed IVF attempt. All I wanted to do was go home to bed, pull the doona over my head and cry. But if I didn’t front up, there would be a sense that the joke had got to me. So I had to sit through Question Time in the advisers’ box and have a smile on my face. It was personally tough.”
Human Being Peta revealed.
The “joke” was a smutty reference to longstanding innuendo about her close relationship with Abbott.
Credlin could have probably left it there, but she agreed to a request by The Sunday Telegraph to talk about her IVF experience. Some will be cynical. Credlin is not fazed.
“I have never given an interview in over a decade in politics. I’m doing this now, about an issue so deeply personal, because I’m determined to set the record straight and because I chose to be as honest as I could in the magazine article,” she said.
I read some write on Twitter that Maiden should have pursued the rumours of an Abbott Credlin affair. It looks as though to me she does here. Though, really, I think rumours and innuendos of private lives of politicians should be the preserve of those on #auspol and commenters on the blogs of Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman. It doesn’t do credit to anyone to go down those paths.
“Some will be cynical”. Yes, Samantha, some will be. The article then goes into some more Human Being Tony.
Her decision to try IVF after the 2010 election brought about another difficult conversation with Abbott on a plane back from Afghanistan in October, 2010.
“I had been to see the doctor a number of years before I finally bit the bullet,” Credlin tells Agenda.
“And for many reasons that anyone who has ever done IVF knows – it’s expensive, it’s intrusive, you lose control.
“(But) I didn’t think I could wait another three years before I gave it a go. I hesitated to raise it with Tony because I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t committed to the job. But there was a window that was closing and I knew that if I didn’t decide if I was in or out of it, I might end up never making a conscious decision to try to have kids.
“And there will be a point if I don’t try that I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I said to Tony, I just want to try, I may not get there, but I want to try.”
Credlin asked Abbott if she should resign as other friends had to focus on IVF.
“And he said, ‘absolutely put all those thoughts out of your head’. He said, ‘you are my chief of staff, who is going to do IVF. You’re not going to go and do anything else. You can make it work. We can juggle things’.
“I said, ‘It’s really intrusive, I don’t want people to know about it’. He said, ‘Nup, I will run interference’.
Credlin says that Abbott in his “usual style of practically pulling apart a problem” said: “Well, drugs? That’s easy – we will just put them in my bar fridge, no one will go in my bar fridge. Bathroom? Well, you obviously can’t use a public toilet can you? Well, that’s fine, I will clear my stuff out and you can use my bathroom for the needles. And he made it sound like it could work.”
As she talks about the experience of doing IVF over and over again and not getting close to even the possibility of a pregnancy, the word “failure” crops up and Credlin begins to cry.
At one point she says Abbott even cried with her one day as she “wallowed” in a pretty awful IVF experience, which would be almost impossible to believe apart from the fact that it’s hard not to feel moved by how honest Credlin is about it all.”(Abbott’s) just such an optimist. He’d say, ‘it’s OK. You’re going to try again’. And I am like, ‘Oh God. I am just coming off failure’,” she laughs. “It would be so easy with IVF to wallow in your failures. But I never want to be one of these people whose whole life gets defined by whether I had kids. You also have to dust yourself off and keep going.”
None of this part of the article should surprise anyone – the human being Tony Abbott acts in a way most people would act, given the same situation. The point could be made, however, that perhaps we haven’t seen many articles that portray the Prime Minister in the same light – and it would not be hard to find similar examples of care and compassion. Maybe that is something Ms Maiden will be doing in the future. Time will tell.
This last part of the article is very good at something outside politics – showing how hard it is for people trying to get pregnant through IVF. It’s good writing here, though that has been lost in the context of the article and what it has been seen to be doing.
Credlin gives every impression of someone who has conquered every problem in her life by just working harder, trying harder, studying harder, training harder.
But infertility isn’t like that.
You can’t always beat it into submission by doing fertility treatments that wreak havoc on your body and sometimes your mind over and over again. Sometimes IVF just doesn’t work.
Credlin would still dearly love to be a mother, but doesn’t think she will try IVF again in an election year.
“It’s more the fact we are in the fight of our lives and you have to be committed. And it takes over your life,” she says.
“And that’s just the nature of it an election year.
“It consumes your life and your partner understands that, and your family understands that. I don’t want to have my attention divided. So I probably wouldn’t.
At this point, I personally have sympathy for a woman who wants to start a family but understands the difficulties in the political cycle – especially in a party so heavily connected with machismo like the Liberal Party. I could imagine a number of readers thinking “these women, complaining…” Maybe that’s just me. The last lines, though, snapped me out of that moment of human sympathy.
“I’ve got one job this year and that’s to change the government.
“But what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Her job is to change the government. And if she can do that through revealing that she’s human and her boss is human, so be it. I think for those reading between the lines and reading the whole article, rather than focusing on a couple of lines, there is a nuanced picture we can gain from this article. The cynicism mixed with the human interest story. I look forward to seeing a similar piece about one of Gillard’s staff. Or perhaps not.