Chasing Peta: A review of Niki Savva’s book: The Road to Ruin

road to ruin coverThe abiding image, the one that sticks doggedly in my mind having read Niki Savva‘s book The Road to Ruin, about the rise and swift fall of the Abbott Government, is of the then prime minister racing down the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, chasing after a fuming or teary-eyed Peta Credlin, his chief of staff.

Abbott would invariably catch up with Credlin, console her and then bring her back – with great reluctance on her part – to the meeting room, where whoever had offended her (no matter if they were a cabinet minister or senior staffer) would offer a grovelling apology: “Sorry Peta.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Savva, a conservative no less, paints a picture of a well-intentioned (from a Liberal voter’s point of view) prime minister, who was seemingly under the spell of this power-hungry, emotionally volatile and unpredictable woman (Credlin would verbally abuse staff, then bring in a cake the next day) and how their bizarre co-dependent relationship brought down the Abbott government in September last year, after less than two years in power.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, indeed a page turner which is no mean feat for a book about politics. Savva, a well-regarded columnist for The Australian newspaper draws on all her vast experience in the Canberra press gallery plus her deep knowledge of the Australian political machine (she was a media adviser to former Treasurer Peter Costello) to weave a fascinating tale of ego, stupidity and ignorance that never strays too far into the banal details of bureaucratic government process.

Across 300 odd pages, it reveals just how poorly suited  Abbott and Credlin were to their respective jobs of PM and chief of staff. Both were brilliant in opposition, hammering away at the dysfunctional Labor government of the Rudd and Gillard years, but in office Savva shows how utterly hopeless they were from the very beginning – Abbott with his dreadful captain’s picks, poor choice of ministers, unwillingness to drop poor policies and inability to read the tea leaves and Credlin with her micro-management, dragon-like temper and deliberate sabotage of the good intentions of those who sought to help Abbott save his government.

Right up to a few weeks before Abbott and Credlin both lost their jobs, the chief of staff – not the prime minister’s wife – was still immersed in choosing the decor for the refurbished lodge….a week out [Credlin] was obsessing about artwork, burying herself in trivia…their lack of preparation on that fateful night would astound even their allies

There were numerous warning signs for Abbott – all of which he ignored or dismissed – foolishly believing that the Liberal Party was not Labor, and would never turf a Coalition Prime Minister out of office, certainly not in his first term after such a resounding electoral victory.

As for Credlin, she seemed to believe her own legend of an invincible, warrior, shielding Abbott from his foes. So much in fact that as Savva reveals, Credlin framed a caricature of herself drawn by The Australian‘s Eric Lobbecke depicting her as just such a sword-wielding warrior (with Abbott hiding behind  her) and hung it in her office.

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The Eric Lobbecke cartoon

These sorts of astonishing details and anecdotes pepper The Road to Ruin. They have the effect of taking the reader inside parliament or the party room or the restaurants where Abbott and Credlin dined, including that cringeworthy famous account of how Credlin fed Abbott from her own fork, just one of many similar incidents that sparked rumours of an affair (dismissed by both of them) but which more imporantly framed the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Also particularly enjoyable are Savva’s own stoushes with Credlin over the things she wrote in her column in The Australian, which put a spotlight on all the bad decisions. Savva would receive spiteful, threatening text messages and on a number of occasions pressure would be applied to the newspaper’s then editor, Chris Mitchell to sack her. Mitchell stood firmly by his star writer, to the huge frustration of Credlin and Abbott who must have felt like they were taking friendly fire from a supposed ally in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet.

As for the chief criticism of The Road to Ruin: that neither Credlin or Abbott were given the right of reply, I think it’s a fair call. It’s a basic principle of good journalism that people be given the opportunity to respond to their accusers. This is particularly the case for Credlin in light of Savva’s very unsympathetic portrayal of her, which smacks in part of retribution.

However, there is nothing to suggest that Savva made anything up, indeed many people are quoted on the record, a very powerful aspect of her book.

Savva has strongly defended her decision not too seek responses from her two protagonists, saying she believed both have a big enough public platform to give their side of events, (and which has proved true).

“They can go out there any day, any night, any day of the week and say what they think happened or give their version of history, which, I might add, is completely at odds with almost everybody else’s version of what took place,” she said in an interview with the ABC.

If it’s a flaw, then its a very minor one in my opinion and does not distract much from what is elegantly written, finely paced political saga which is certain to become a classic of its genre.

Are thinner politicians more electable?

rudd v abbottOf all the guff that has been written about this upcoming election – and there has been a lot – an article from Brisbane’s The Courier Mail caught my attention focusing on the fact that prime minister Kevin Rudd is packing on the pounds apparently under the stress of losing his short-lived grip on power.

The story, written by Hannah Davies, had as its headline: ‘Moon-faced PM ‘comfort eating’ as the stress of the Federal Election campaign takes its toll.

The story quotes a number of nutritionist and dietician who comment on the prime minister’s fuller face and apparent appetite for pizza and beer with the insinuation that he’s becoming less able to govern by virtue of his weight gain.

They even give him free advice such a that he opt for “nuts and a fruit basket”.

Hannah Davies even went so far as to ask the PM’s spokesperson whether he was “comfort eating”. A ridiculous, irrelevant question you’d think given the broader issues being faced – she might as well also have asked if he was spending more time on the couch eating potato chips!

Anyway, it does raise an interesting point about appearances.

Contrast Kevin Rudd’s apparent podginess (It’s easy to find an unflattering photo of someone constantly be photographed, hence my use of the word “apparent”) with the superfit appearance of Tony Abbott and its easy for a conservative Rupert Murdoch-owned paper like the Courier Mail to suggest, subtely that gaining weight is a sign perhaps of bad personal management, bad habits and an inability to lead.

It’s interesting that the two other high-profile politicians to lose a lot of weight are both on the conservative side of politics: shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, whose is a shadow of the huggable bear of a man he once was and NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, whose weight has bounced up and down like a yo-yo over the last 15 years, but is now almost unhealthily gaunt.

O’Farrell explained in an interview to the Daily Telegraph in December last year that he lost the weight by challenging himself after the 2003 election to go to the gym every day for a week, a pledge he has stuck to for nine years.

Joe Hockey admits to having some help via gastric bypass surgery over the Christmas break followed up by with dieting and exercise.

He says its because he wants to be around to see his grandchildren grow up and was also tired of being called “Sloppy Joe” by former Treasurer Wayne Swan.

It’s surely no coincidence though that Joe Hockey has lost his weight in an election year.

Slimmer and fitter apparently makes you a better leader, thinker and decision maker in the eyes of many while adding a few pounds is a sign that you’ve lost your mojo.

This, of course, is baloney.

Yes, losing weight is good for your health and overall sense of wellbeing and people who lose weight are to be commended.

But fat people that suddenly become thin do not suddenly develop more brain cells, a better moral and ethical belief system and a greater sense of what’s right and wrong.

Being fat never bothered Winston Churchill, nor did it stop him defeating a far skinnier Adolf Hitler.

And there’s no indication that billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer intends to shed any pounds as he seeks a political role.

Yes you may live longer and feel better about yourself, but let’s not confuse this with character, decency and moral strength.

After all Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush – two leaders who both puffed out their chests in front of the camera – are hardly the model of political astuteness.

On with the circus!

Why Alan Jones is talking to himself

Alan Jones playing Franklin Roosevelt in AnnieThe first time I heard radio shock jock Alan Jones, I saw him as well.

It was soon after I arrived in Australia and was living in Sydney. It was September 2004.

This bald man with a round, red face and bulging eyes would appear on breakfast TV and rant on about something or other in a condescending tone, hardly seeming to take a breath. It would all be over in a couple minutes.

I found it vaguely amusing – knowing nothing at the time about who Alan Jones was or his place in Australian media and politics.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know more about him, usually in relation to something disparaging he has said about women, the Labor party, minority groups, aborigines or  when he has bullied or and taunted someone on his show or in public (as was the case when he attempted to turn a rabid crowd outside parliament against Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley).

But I was also surprised to learn that he coached a successful Wallabies team in the mid 1980s to a famous Grand Slam in Europe and Bledisloe Cup win in New Zealand.

He spoke last year to Leigh Sales on the ABC 7.30 report about his opposition to Coal Seam Gas drilling and its impact on fertile farmland, a stance I support, but also defended his comments about throwing women like Prime Minister Julia Gillard into chaff bags and tossing them out to sea.

Asked how he picked his “issues” Jones explained:

“My listeners are my best researchers, so a lot of my issues are taken from the correspondence. I answer over 100 letters a day and I gain information from them.”

And who are these people who write into Jones’s show and inspire his campaigns?

I contacted 2GB and asked them to send me the media kit they send out to advertisers, which would, I thought, give information about the demographics of his listener audience.

But I never got a reply.

Then I came across a 2006 webpaper by Clive Hamilton of the Australian Institute titled “Who listens to Alan Jones?”

I emailed Clive Hamilton and asked him, if perhaps he had updated his study.

He replied: “I am not aware of any update of the information in the report, but I
doubt the analysis would have changed much. In fact, with the greater polarisation of politics what I said about Jones’s listeners is probably more true.”

With that in mind, I delved into Hamilton’s study, which is based on a range of sources and surveys including Roy Morgan research.

So who does listen to Alan Jones?

Firstly, they’re old.

“The typical Jones listener is an older Australian – 68% per cent are over 50,” says Hamilton in his report.

Secondly, they’re retiree-battlers.

According to Hamilton his listeners tend to be concentrated into two groups: “pensioners and others with incomes around the average”.

Thirdly, they are god-fearing.

“Only 10% of Jones listeners say they have no religious affiliation compared to 26% of other Australians”.

Fourthly, they vote for the Coalition.

75% of his listeners supported the ruling Coalition government at the time.

Fifthly, they’re disgruntled.

More than three quarters (77%) of his listeners believe that the fundamental values of Australian society are under threat compared to 66% of all Australians” and they believe that crime is getting worse.

As for the racist element, according to Hamilton’s report Alan Jones listeners are “less likely to believe that Aboriginal culture is an essential component of Australian society”.

Those with long memories may recall that in 1993 Alan Jones described the choice of aboriginal musician Mandawuy Yunupingu, the lead singer of Yothu Yindi as Australian of the Year as an ‘insult’ and claimed that Yunupingu only received the award because he is black.

And who can forget his comments that many claim incited the Cronulla riots including remarks like: “We don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in western Sydney”.

Delve further into the research and more conservative streaks emerge.

Only 13% of his listeners believe that gay couples should be allowed to adopt children (the national average in 2006 was 37%) and nearly 50% believe that homosexuality is immoral – findings that must surely sit uncomfortably with Jones, given questions over his own sexuality.

The research also finds that Alan Jones shows incredible favourable bias towards the Liberal and National Parties, while criticising almost every policy from Labor.

A bias that has clearly not shifted one iota between 2006 and October 2012, given the parade of Coalition politicians who appear regularly on his show.

Despite his audience representing a small, polarised section of Australian society, Alan Jones still seems to think that his audience represents the views of all Australians.

And that’s because they’re so much like him – just with smaller egos and a lot less money.

Perhaps one day he will acknowledge that who actually listens to his show are grumpy old white men living on the Western outskirts of Sydney, who ring in to his show to tell him the country is going to the dogs every time someone with a darker shade of skin colour or foreign accent moves into their neighbourhood.

But I doubt it.

Just recently he ran a poll on 2GB asking whether the massive irrigation farm, Cubbie Station in Queensland, should be sold to Chinese interests.

Not surprisingly, the vote was 99% against the sale.

I listened to a bit of the commentary that followed:

“Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan…they couldn’t care less,” said Jones.

“You’ve got dopes running Canberra,” he added.

And so thinking of an image that best sums up the Alan Jones listener audience, I thought of the poster for the movie “Being John Malkovich”.

You know the one with all the people holding up a cut-out of John Malkovich in front of their own faces.

Instead in this case it’s Alan Jones.