In politics, perception is all-important

I first heard the scuttlebutt about Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin more than two years ago. As with all rumours, it was handed on to me by what I was assured was an impeccable source.

The relationship had reached crisis point, I was told. The Abbott marriage was finished; the only question was whether Margie would throw Tony out of the marital home or walk out of it herself.

And when it didn’t happen, there was no respite; now the story was that Margie was just being loyal to the cause. As Hazel Hawke did with the unfaithful Bob, she would wait until Tony’s leadership of his party was over before leaving.

The gossip was persistent and pervasive, to the extent that one of Tony Abbott’s staunchest allies, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, confronted him with it: the perception, she said, was that he was sleeping with his chief of staff. Of course both Abbott and Credlin denied it, but that made very little difference.

The circumstantial evidence of their intimacy was overwhelming. The pair went everywhere together, both Australia and overseas, whether Margie was part of the entourage or not.

There were tales of Peta hand-feeding Tony in a public restaurant, and of laying her head on his shoulder; he was said to have slapped her on the bum. His infatuation and her dominance were plain for all to see.

And even when Tony lost his leadership – as he was constantly warned that he would if the relationship continued – it seemed that their co-dependence remained. Tony, we are told, urged Malcolm Turnbull to appoint Peta to the cosy position of sex discrimination commissioner in Australia and for her husband, Brian Loughnane, to be shunted off to the other side of the world to a diplomatic post in the Vatican.

Turnbull declined, but then Abbott moved in to the couple’s residence in Canberra as a regular boarder. He called her his landlady, and she made him a cake for one of his gatherings of disgruntled supporters at their meetings in the monkey pod room at Parliament House.

It is all very well for apologists like Louise Adler to say that this was just their own private business, but the point is that it became a public concern: it affected the entire government, as Fierravanti-Wells and many others could attest.

Reporting it – writing a book about it, as Niki Savva did – was entirely legitimate, and there have been plenty of precedents; recall the case of John Gorton and his chief of staff Ainsley Gotto, or, even more notoriously, Jim Cairns and his chief of staff Junie Morosi.

It was not Tony Abbott’s only captain’s pick, but it became one of his most self-destructive ones. And for him to dismiss this sorry history as scurrilous gossip (or, even sillier, Credlin’s comments about “sneering cowards”) showed that they just didn’t get it.

If they were going to destroy their political credibility, they could at least have enjoyed it.  If people were going to talk about it anyway, it would surely have been more fun just to jump into bed and get on with it.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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