The Peta Principle – how Abbott rose to the level of his incompetence

‘What’s wrong with Tony Abbott?” It’s a question that’s been asked ever since he rose to prominence as party leader, if not before. But then the question had a whimsical ring about it. What was wrong with a leader who was so nasty, so misogynist, so belligerent, so hell bent upon the destruction of his enemies? People had their answers, answers that went back to his early days in student politics. We wrote about it on The Political Sword in late 2009 in The pugilistic politician. The conclusion was that this was Abbott’s nature, malevolent though it was.

Over the years we have seen a man who rose from ministerial ranks to opposition leader where he was deemed to be competent, to prime minister where he was manifestly incompetent.

Abbott’s rise is a classic example of a management principle enunciated by Laurence J. Peter in his famous 1969 book: The Peter Principle, in which he asserted that as managers are promoted, they "rise to the level of their incompetence." We have written about The Peter Principle before.

Let’s trace Abbott’s path. The media was lavish in its praise for his performance as opposition leader, some going so far as to assert that he was the best ever, presumably arguing that aggression, confrontation, adversarial behaviour and ceaseless negativity were the preferred ways to electoral success. Murdoch journalists particularly barracked for him endlessly. Defeat of the detested Labor government and the installation of a grown-up, adult Coalition government was all that mattered; the means, no matter how ruthless, were irrelevant.

So it came to pass. The tacit assumption, rarely ever challenged, was that Abbott’s electoral success would translate into success in government. Some of us challenged that assumption, but who was listening?

Back as far as July 2011 we plumbed the forbidding prospect of an Abbott prime ministership on The Political Sword in If Tony Abbott were PM, and again in August 2013 in Say no, no, no to Tony Abbott, we predicted the disaster that Abbott would become in government. The media though, and much of the public, were sanguine. The right-wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, now had their puppet captive in the most powerful position in the land. It soon filled Abbott's policy free zone with a list of 75 policy suggestions.

Then along came his actual behaviour as prime minister.

We observed it month after awful month. Many could see a dysfunctional pattern developing as Abbott tried to apply to governance the strategies that got him elected. He seemed not to see that different strategies were needed in government; he seemed to think that persistent negativity would again win the day for him. Some columnists were prepared to point this out, but the Murdoch media continued to be his advocate, making excuses for his increasingly aberrant behaviour, hoping to see some change towards effective governance. It never came. Eventually, even News Limited journalists started to show doubts, and gave subtle warnings to Abbott. But excuse making continued, hoping that soon Abbott would wake up.

There was one journalist though who wrote regular columns in The Australian, Niki Savva, who did begin to express reservations about Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin.

Now Savva has put the cat among the pigeons with her just-published book: The Road to Ruin – How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government. Even the title is revealing: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own Government. Savva’s story shows how Credlin believed it was as much her government as Abbott’s. Herein lies the clue to the most extraordinary relationship that came about between Abbott and Credlin, one that achieved success in opposition but lamentable failure in government.

Although Savva’s book has been available only this week, the published excerpts and the media comments of the author and her interviewers provide enough detail for preliminary analysis.

It is not the purpose of this piece to explore whether the relationship between Abbott and Credlin was sexual in the sense they were sleeping together. Some feel affronted by this possibility; most are more concerned with the deeper relationship where Credlin seemed to have an overweening influence over Abbott, a relationship where Abbott seemed dependent on her for advice, strategies and instructions about how to run government day by day. Credlin insisted she got Abbott and the Coalition into power and that Abbott could not run the government without her. Moreover, she believed that what worked in opposition would work in government. The pattern of behaviour continued. What she failed to comprehend was that Abbott, and perhaps she too, had been promoted to their level of incompetence.

Many were worried about her tactics and her influence. Those close to Abbott were concerned, even apprehensive about her, and the way she manipulated him. Savva documents these concerns in a number of on-the-record statements ministers, backbenchers and public servants made to her. So angry and frustrated were they about Credlin’s autocratic behaviour that they were prepared to put their name to them.

What then went wrong with Tony Abbott?

Clearly, he was profoundly influenced by Credlin, dependent on her advice, and needed her instructions about what to say and how to say it. What he did not realize was that her advice was no longer relevant now that he was Prime Minister.

He wanted her to be close to him in meetings, even with international dignitaries, willing to let her run the political show, even foreign policy, happy to let her decide on his appointments, his appearances, even small details of protocol. He allowed her to micromanage his office and his cabinet, to interact with his staff, his ministers and with public servants, to instruct them, even about staff appointments, and to discipline and bully them if they disobeyed or disappointed her, sometimes in an undignified way.

Credlin’s behaviour repeatedly evoked adverse reactions and anger, among even senior people, many of whom she treated with disdain. Many of these have ventilated their longstanding resentment and frustration in Savva’s book. Many sought her removal, but Abbott would have none of that. His attachment and dependency were too great. Likewise, senior party figures warned Abbott, and at the time of the February 2014 spill advised him to get rid of Credlin. Rupert Murdoch demanded, nay ordered Abbott to sack his Chief of Staff. The advice was never heeded.

Abbott allowed Credlin to run an insular, secretive PMO that excluded many, where she overplayed her hand repeatedly, where she was dominantly in charge.

Unquestionably, she is a prepossessing woman: intelligent, accomplished, assured, and overbearing. No doubt it would have been difficult to control her, to hold her back. But it was Abbott who was selected to lead the government, not Credlin. He ought to have been in control. In Say no, no, no to Abbott, it was postulated that in government Abbott would exhibit conflicting attributes: vengefulness and weakness. He has certainly exhibited vengefulness that all can see. But only now are we seeing the depth of his weakness. Unable to govern himself, he was so weak that he handed over governance and many of his prime ministerial functions to his Chief of Staff: he openly referred to her, and it seemed, increasingly deferred to her as the ‘Boss’. The fact that this person was a woman is immaterial; it is the fact that he recklessly handed away his responsibilities to another that is reprehensible.

What is astonishing is that the work of government could be so readily handed over to a non-elected person by someone like Abbott, who shows so much machismo, who flaunts his masculinity, who enjoys so much playing the tough guy, tough enough to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin.

Behavioural psychologists and psychiatrists would relish debating the Abbott/Credlin relationship, and attempting to attach a diagnostic label.

I will not try to emulate them, but even the untrained must be asking themselves what sort of behavioural problem, what sort of psychiatric condition each might have, and what sort of pathological relationship they might have had.

‘Emotional dependence’, where an individual can’t make decisions without the other, springs to mind. The influence of Credlin is reminiscent of that of Svengali, the evil hypnotist in the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier. Colloquially, ‘a Svengali’ is used to describe a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or evil motives.

Whatever the psychiatric diagnosis might be, there is no doubt that Savva’s book documents the intensity and extent of the relationship that existed between Credlin and Abbott and its awful outcomes that proved to be so counterproductive and injurious to them both and destructive to the government they led.

This situation is more fitted to the drama of the theatre than to real life day-to-day politics, yet there it was under our very noses, at the pinnacle of our national government. How could such a situation have ever arisen? We have seen dysfunction in our federal government before, but nothing like this!

Who is to blame? While some point the finger at Credlin, clearly Abbott is the culprit. He was the prime minister, the one in charge. He should have been calling the shots. We at The Political Sword pointed out long before Abbott became prime minister that he would be a dud should he get that job. It was only when he got it that it dawned on him that he wasn’t up to it, and so he turned to Credlin. Too inexperienced for national governance, Linus-style, Abbott reached out for his security blanket – Peta Credlin. Sadly for him, and the nation, she could not rescue him from his own incompetence. Together they resorted to opposition tactics and wrecked the government.

An even more bizarre twist to this story is that Abbott, along with some of his sycophants, still hold out hope for a second Abbott government, an exercise in delusion of monumental proportions. Well connected people in Canberra predict that if Abbott tried to topple Turnbull, he’d be lucky now to get even a tiny handful of votes; Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Peter Dutton, Andrew Nikolic et al - the so-called ‘Monkey Pod’- are likely all who are still waving Abbott’s flag.

So let’s not engage in speculation about whether their relationship was sexually intimate. It matters not. The only conclusion that is tenable is that Abbott was incompetent and insecure as prime minister. He was a dud; he did not know how to govern or how to consult; he did not know how to assume the vast and widely variable responsibilities of his position.

In a classic illustration of the Peter Principle, Abbott had risen to his level of incompetence. He turned to the only one he thought could save him, Peta. But she too was a victim of this same principle; in her case, let’s call it the ‘Peta’ Principle. She had risen to her level of incompetence. She couldn’t save him and didn’t. End of story!

What do you think?
What are your views about Niki Savva's account of the Abbott/Credlin saga, and this assessment of it?

We look forward to reading your views and your comments.

Rate This Post

Current rating: 0.3 / 5 | Rated 15 times

Graeme Henchel

9/03/2016Who is to blame? Every single member of the coalition who were happy to see Abbott and Credlin trash Australia in opposition then proceed to destroy it government. Every single media hack who let Abbott get away with continuous lies. In the end it was not Malcolm Turnbull or the liberal party that stopped Abbott it was the tide of public opinion. That Abbott could still, even at his nadir, gain 46% 2PP goes to show how gullible a significant portion of the population are.

Ad astra

9/03/2016Graeme Henchel Of course you are right Graeme. While Abbott and Credlin head the list of the culpable, there are many others. From Coalition members, to their supporters, to the media barrackers, to much of the voting public, all of whom turned a blind eye to Abbott's appalling behaviour. All they wanted was Coalition supremacy at any cost. I wonder how they feel now? Is their any regret, any remorse? Maybe among some, but for ruthless politicians, power is all that counts. The threat of losing it is their prime motivator. They will even throw out a first term PM, if he is headed for electoral loss. The Coalition vowed they would never, because 'they were not Labor', but they did. Thank you for your comment. Do come again

Ad astra

9/03/2016Stephen You are right. Abbott has no respect for the privacy of his opponents when they are getting in his way, and believes he has the right to invade the privacy of women who wish to use contraception or have an abortion, by imposing his will. Nor had he any respect for same sex couples who wish to marry, as this does not accord with his beliefs. He ought not to expect his privacy to be preserved, or to be spared speculation about his relationship with Peta Credlin. He describes Niki Savva's book as scurrilous because it probes the relationship. Many might feel he has no reason to complain, even though most are indifferent to the truth or otherwise of the innuendo. [b]By the way, I'm having trouble with my spell check: every time I type 'Credlin' it changes it to 'Cradling'. Isn't that curious![/b] Thank you for your comment. Do come again.


10/03/2016Ad Heh. "Peta" principle. Heh heh. And re your very last comment, Autocorrect always used to change my surname, which you know, into Blimey. Now, re Abbort & Cradling: Well we know that psychopaths exist, they're all over the place, religiomanes, violence-obsessed, drug freaks, control freaks, money-obsessed, sex deviates, ego-maniacs ... The object of Democracy, surely, must be to see that no one of them seizes so much power that the society as a whole suffers. But Murdoch is no democrat, he is himself a psychopathic control freak and he wields supreme power over the Media in Australia. The power to control the thinking of enough of the population that he could engineer the placement of another psychopath as our PM. Abbort by-the-way, so acknowledged even by progressives as a formidable Opposition Leader, really wasn't so terrific: he had a huge boost from Murdoch and *J*U*L*I*A* held a razor-edge majority, with not even enough votes to be able to evict Abborttians from Parliament for an hour on the 94A provisions so beloved of Bronny and now Sam Eagle. But there is no argument about Abbort's record as a PM.He was disastrously out-of his depth, and his psychopathic dominatrix Peta had a set-up to be the real power behind his mediaeval throne. But the really scary part is that the masses are so easily controlled. At last the People began to see through him, and deserted him in droves. And where did they go? From a psychopathic control freak to a pompous squillionaire bubblehead. But we'll get him too. VENCEREMOS!


10/03/2016Shouldn't we be asking "What's wrong with the Australian Liberal Party that it could select such a man as Tony Abbott as leader? And what's wrong with our national media that it didn't have many more critical things to say about him much sooner? Why was someone like Tony Abbott able to assume leadership of the the Coalition in Opposition and then the country as Prime Minister? More importantly, now that Abbott is gone and Malcolm Turnbull is back as party leader, and finally as Prime Minister, shouldn't we be asking what's wrong with him? Why wasn't he able to pull his party together to see what the science of climate change was all about and its significance for this wide brown land?

Ad astra

10/03/2016Talk Turkey The psychiatric diagnoses you offer are plausible. I hope that sometime those who understand the intricacies of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association might attempt to analyse Abbott, Cradling and Murdoch. It would make fascinating reading. And when they finish, I'd like them to analyse Turnbull. VENCEREMOS

Ad astra

10/03/2016Patriciawa Wise words indeed. Why did it take so long for the Abbott barrackers to wake up to his incompetence? Because it was in their interests to pretend that he was OK, until that became untenable. Now we wait to see how competent Turnbull is, and whether he will continue to sacrifice his long-held principles (especially about climate change) on the altar of expediency and self preservation.


10/03/2016Ad Astra, Your spell check is indeed very percipient. The 'cradling' angle has come up in a couple of articles and may indeed make more sense than the suggestion that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. The incident where Credlin is feeding Abbott food off her plate led Julie Szego, a Fairfax columnist, to comment –[i] ‘that this was done in public suggests an intimacy more maternal than sexual’.[/i]* Savva herself says that it matters not whether they were having an affair: what is certain is that it was a toxic relationship for which both are culpable, but none more so than Abbott. As you point out, he abrogated his responsibilities as PM. He outsourced the administration of his government and the governance of the nation to a functionary. To again quote Szego: [i]He allowed a prime ministerial chief of staff to be exposed to the public gaze when the position demands discretion and invisibility. He persisted in placing her in the line of fire from colleagues. For all his hyper-masculine image, Abbott hid behind the skirt of the "fiercest political warrior" he'd ever worked with...Of course, as she liked to remind him, he owed her a great deal. (And, being the wife of the Liberal's federal director, she was better connected than most.)[/i] * Object of scorn: what if Peta was Peter instead.? Julie Szego. Graeme Henchel and Stephen. Agree also with your observations. TT I agree. It’s a nice title ;) tee hee. Patriciawa. I cannot but agree also with your comment. A recent article might hold some interest for you. Although ostensibly about Trump, much of it speaks of Abbott’s antics, especially as Opposition leader: The pseudo-campaign: How the media enabled Trump by destroying politics. [i]Nearly 60 years ago, the historian Daniel Boorstin in his seminal book The Image described a society in which things were increasingly staged expressly for the media without any intrinsic merit of their own — things like photo ops, press conferences, award ceremonies. He labeled these “pseudo-events” because they only looked like real events, while being hollow inside. And Boorstin defined pseudo-people too — people whose activities, as he put it, had no intrinsic value either. He called them “celebrities” and he defined them as people who were known for being well-known.[/i],8748 Abbott once said, wtte, that politicians couldn’t be expected to sit around in Parliament House all the time. It seems that he just wasn’t interested in one of the core requirements of the job, namely, sitting around governing!


11/03/2016Bronwyn Bishop endorses account that Abbott office overruled 'Choppergate' apology The former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop has endorsed a new book’s account that she immediately sought to apologise for the “Choppergate” scandal but was overruled by Tony Abbott’s office.

Another Trappist Ale

11/03/2016G'day At a meta-level of the actions of the far right or new conservative, we find ostensibly they are mouth pieces for corporations. Arguably that view is validated by the passing of the TPP, TIA etc. Moreover, drafts of new legislation in the USA, & Britain are increasingly written by corporate lawyers for corporate interests. The Corporatist agenda is to subvert the State into a Corporate affiliate. News Corp has for the last 6 years been getting into the $50 billion US education "market". The breakdown of the State is purely undertaken by corporations to enrich themselves. The US Health sector is corporate led, yet accounts for chewing up 18% of US GDP. Yet socialised medicine accounts for 8/9% of GDP in Australia and Britain. As the private sector touts efficiency above all other values how does the LNP justify the breakup of Medicare. It can't. It surreptitiously cauterises a section for privatisation with minimal public scrutiny and Medicare is destroyed by a hundred small privatisations. The LNP do not, like all Conservatives in politics now, have a development agenda. Theirs is anti - whatever. Anti climate, anti the challenge to vested interests like coal and oil, anti any non-corporate idea of collective betterment. The Conservative right scream out fear. Labor can't manage money and by extension the economy, fear of Unions - such a small and broken group (except in construction and mining.) and of course the newspapers//media owned by these vested media interests lead the charge. Now the LNP have put their own people in charge of public organisations like the ABC, what are the facts? Simple, these public bodies withhold criticism of the conservative right out of mandated fear by their newly appointed leaders. The ABC pulling criticism of the NBN is just the start. Tony Abbott and crew do not intend to develop the nation. They want to plunder it for their corporatist masters. Or in the case of Arthur Sinodinos call for the efficiency of privatisation as long as he and his cartel of profiteering mates can make $20 million in fees and charges tacked on..Pure greed & hypocrisy. Abbott's failing and where we wish the criticism should have been levelled at - is policy. It wasn't, it was worse than that. He couldn't exercise power, couldn't run the machine. That is how regressed the LNP is. But destroy your critics, get rid of CSIRO climate division, pay (and fail) to obtain University/academic creditability with (and one has no objection to a climate skeptic properly argued) but not to a already demolished hack. The LNP have done very little to create economic growth let alone develop the economy. The worse the economies of the West become the greater the call to punish the poor and redistribute in favour of corporations as they will, as the marketing goes, create so called efficiencies for the benefit of all. Just behind tax shelters and off-shore job creation and higher prices due to their monopolised market conditions. The Occidental's conservatives have cost our economies much needed investment, growth and development. The State has been decimated and is almost at the point it can no longer be auto-catalytic for growth. Finally, Westpac stated it wanted - and got - 50% of its income from fixed/standing charges. That is such a damning fact that corporations are the new permanent institutions that hoover our nation's wealth for themselves and pay so little back - I ask what will it take to regain the reins of national development for the public good.


11/03/2016Tony Abbott has been relegated to a bit part in the downfall of his government Bridie Jabour The focus, vitriol and blame heaped on Credlin is quite extraordinary, and of course there are elements of sexism, but the main player, the actual prime minister, the man who was in charge of Australia has been relegated a bit part in the downfall of his government.

Ad astra

11/03/2016Casablanca Thank you for your perceptive comments, and your link to [i]The pseudo-campaign: How the media enabled Trump by destroying politics[/i] on [i]Independent Australia[/i], an excellent article that all who scratch their head about the success of the Trump campaign should read:,8748 The concluding paragraphs summarise the thrust of the argument: “[i]Trump is the Kardashian of politics. “Of course, just about everyone in the media now, excepting Les Moonves [CBS corporation chief], is bemoaning the inevitability of Trump’s nomination, which is a bit like the boy who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. The media may say they regret it, but they did this. They systematically destroyed our politics in the name of entertainment. They systematically conditioned us to anticipate a show. And, frankly, they will keep on doing it. In fact, Moonves seems to indicate that he would fire anyone who didn’t. “So, the media can cry all they want and hope to exculpate themselves by trying to stop Trump. But in the end, Trump could only make a mockery of our politics because the media already had.”[/i]


11/03/2016Surely we have to take some responsibility for electing this giant man baby? Follow our handy psychografic flowquizchart-o-gram to find out if you are personally to blame for the downfall of the Tony government

Ad astra

11/03/2016Casablanca Great graphic - clever message.


12/03/2016Thanks Casablanca for all recent links. What never ceases to amaze me with the LNP supporters is their fierce loyalty towards Abbott throughout his time as PM. Surely blind Freddie could have seen through his hyperbole and lies. We can only hope those who switched to the LNP will have the good sense to switch back at the next election. While I always read all the articles and posts on TPS, I am not a regular blogger on any site. I am sure as it gets closer to the election there will be many who will be back posting on this site.

Ad astra

12/03/2016Another Trappist Ale Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i], and thank you for your insightful comment. Do come again. You make a telling argument about the pernicious influence of corporations on our polity. You provide illustrative examples. Most of us are aware of the influence of the media – that of Rupert Murdoch and his media empire is legendary. There is perhaps less awareness of the influence of other corporations, but their lobbyists infiltrate Canberra in vast numbers – they are more numerous by far than politicians. Recently, we have seen the influence of the coal lobby, and as you point out, the pharmaceutical lobby is powerful, particularly in the US. In league with the lobby that represents pathology and imagining services, they have pushed healthcare expenditure there to 18% of GDP, about twice that of Australia. Yet healthcare here is superior to that in the US, especially for the less wealthy. The shame that should be heaped upon the current government is that it has allowed the influence of corporations to become excessive, and has encouraged privatization. There has been a tacit assumption that the private sector can and will always do any job better than the public service. That has let the greedy prosper at the taxpayer’s expense. You mention Arthur Sinodinos; he showed us how to game the system. The NSW ICAC inquiry revealed that after leaving his position as Chief-of-Staff in PM John Howard’s office he had earned an alleged $200,000 salary from Australian Water Holdings for doing almost nothing, and stood to make up to $20 million if AWH won a lucrative contract with the state-owned Sydney Water company. While the LNP is in power we can expect it to favour the big end of town, and neglect those at the bottom of the heap, rationalizing that the benefits afforded the top end will trickle down to the bottom – the long-discredited horse and sparrow theory. Sadly, they will not change. I contend it is hard-wired into their brains.


12/03/2016Ad and Another Trappist Ale RE your respective comments about 'pernicious influence' and 'far right or new conservative': Gadfly, in today's The Saturday Paper reports that a James Patterson from the [b]IPA[/b] has been pre-selected for the top spot on the Victorian Senate ticket. James, Gadfly informs us, 'is from the Flat Earth Society, otherwise known as the Rinehart–Murdoch–Tobacco bankrolled [b]Institute of Paid Advocacy'[/b]. 'James is a great believer in free speech, except when he’s talking to Gadfly. He forbids reporting of priceless responses such as his unique double whammy, “My ‘no comment’ is off the record.” The [b]IPA[/b] is the main incubator of right-wing policy wonkery in Australia. Abbott's main policy was to implement [b]IPA[/b] policies - the so called 75 policy points already linked to in The Peta Principle ( Another luminary from that incubator is Tim Wilson, 'Freedom Boy' who was appointed to the Human Right’s Commission following one of Abbott’s first Captain’s calls. He was reportedly being lined up to replace Gillian Triggs as President of the Human Right’s Commission which the IPA was committed to abolishing anyway. Wilson has now resigned from the HRC to contest the safe seat vacated by Andrew Robb.,7416


12/03/2016Doodle Poodle Thanks for your endorsement. Here are some more links: Abbott, Credlin and the abuse of power. Barrie Cassidy,-credlin-and-the-abuse-of-power/7237386 Folie-a-deux: Reliance on Peta Credlin disabled, but did not kill, Tony Abbott Jack Waterford This is not nudge-nudge for an affair, but a pointer to a relationship in which both parties had lost some of the detachment that makes for effective public partnership. It contributed to a folie-a-deux and a type of co-dependency that seems to have disabled both, but particularly Abbott. Abbott’s Undermining Of Turnbull Is ‘Amateur Hour’ Kevin Rudd Claims The Shovel “I Think for Myself” Credlin Tells Abbott To Say The Shovel Abbott Says He’ll Need To Check With Credlin Before Confirming Or Denying Their Affair The Shovel


12/03/2016The 'small government' sucker punch. Tim Dunlop The argument isn't about big government versus small government, but who government serves, the many or the few.'small-government'-sucker-punch/7234168
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?