Thought you already knew everything there was to know about the downfall of the Abbott Government?
Well it turns out there’s more.
For one, Prime Minister Tony Abbott reportedly had a habit of saying “I’ll check with the boss” and he wasn’t talking about the Governor General (he meant his Chief of Staff).
In the first installment of a five-part series on the fall of the Abbott Government, Fairfax political editor Peter Hartcher has dropped a few bombs about what really went on in the lead up to the August spill.
It reads as a sort of “how not to” guide to being the PM. And it’s full of new details about how Abbott’s demise came about. Here are some things you might not have seen happening in the months before we changed the Prime Minister. Again.
1. Abbott effectively picked his Chief of Staff over being PM.
Despite apparently being warned numerous times not to, Abbott stuck with his divisive Chief of Staff Peta Credlin till the very end.
Hartcher writes that after Abbott survived a Liberal party-room challenge in February, in which 39 MPs voted against him continuing as PM despite there being no other candidate, he was told Credlin had to go.
“If there is another challenge and Peta Credlin and Joe Hockey are still here, you will lose,” Eric Abetz reportedly told him.
Hartcher writes that Abbott was also warned to replace Credlin and his treasurer by Andrew Robb and a number of other senior Coalition MPs.
An unnamed member of the Abbott ministry reportedly said: “This is the first time in Australian history that a prime minister has been knifed not to get rid of the prime minister, but to get rid of his chief of staff.”
Abbott also reportedly deferred to Credlin in most situations, often referring to her as the boss, and even telling foreign leaders he would run things past her.
2. Turnbull, Bishop and Morrison were talking about a change as early as February.
According to Hartcher, just before the failed spill in February, then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull approached Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop and then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison to take key positions in a Turnbull government.
While neither explicitly committed to the plan, there was reportedly a tacit understanding between them.
“‘We basically agreed – Turnbull as leader, Bishop as deputy and Morrison as treasurer,’ is how one participant summarised the conversation to a colleague,” Hartcher writes.
But Morrison denies there was any agreement, telling Sky News the story was wrong.
“Nothing came of it. There was no arrangement, there was no deal, there was no offers, there was none of this sort of stuff. I mean, I think it’s just excited commentary,” he said.
3. The Credlin/Loughnane connection was a serious problem.
Credlin is married to former Federal Liberal Party Director Brian Loughnane, whose job was to ensure the smooth running of all things Liberal at a national level.
Reports about the tensions in the party over the Credlin-Loughnane power block were constant during Abbott’s time in the top job.
Watch Peta Credlin discussing her previous job as chief of staff. Post continues below.
MPs concerned about the way things were working in government felt that they couldn’t complain to the Federal Director of the party, because of his link to the PMs office.
Hartcher confirms that MPs and party officials hated the set-up.
“With this set-up, you felt you couldn’t because it would be a career-limiting move,” one unnamed MP is quoted as saying.
Loughnane quit the post in October, denying he was pushed.
4. Negative Government agenda frustrated MPs.
Hugely successful in Opposition as a negative force in the national debate, Abbott’s opposition to everything became a handicap in government.
“I think there was a direct correlation between our effectiveness in opposition and our failure in government,” an unnamed cabinet member told Hartcher.
“We were so focused on bringing down the Labor government that we never created an alternative vision for the country. We had a laundry list – stop the boats and so on – not a vision.
“If Tony had led us to the next election, Labor would have said, ‘We have a vision for the future.’ We would have said, ‘We’ve solved these problems – we’ve stopped the boats etc.’ It was no match for the velocity of political events. There was a vacuum.”
These issues built up over the 23-month term of the Abbott Government, and taken together forced many MPs to change their minds about the man who led them to victory in September 2013.
In the end, it appears there was plenty that Abbott could have done to buy more time in the top job. But he wasn’t willing to change. So the Prime Minister changed instead.