Why you should care

They say that behind every successful man is a woman. But who’s behind his downfall? 

Julie Bishop was fuming. It was demeaning enough to have to beg to attend international climate talks in Peru, but now, Bishop was told, she’d be chaperoned there by the minister for trade. According to press reports Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister, “went bananas.”

The target of her fury? Not the trade minister, or another minister. Not even the prime minister, Tony Abbott.

Rather, it was Peta Credlin, the prime minister’s chief of staff and perhaps the most powerful woman in Australian politics. Never mind she holds no elected position. Or, for that matter, that her boss is a conservative Catholic who’s made rather untoward comments about women — e.g., they’re “physiologically unsuited for leadership.” At 6 feet tall, Credlin towers over her boss and is clearly the woman behind the successful man, the “political warrior” who, it’s thought, propelled Abbott’s rise to power. Today, the pair have “formed a partnership unlike any” seen before in Australian politics, says professor John Uhr, who’s tracked Credlin’s rise from his base at Australian National University, in the capital, Canberra.

But Credlin has also inspired a flood of vituperation, not least from elected officials in Abbott’s own Liberal Party. In the case of Credlin vs. Bishop, both say everything’s resolved, but the photos tell a rather different story: Credlin’s pointing at Bishop like an angry parent at a toddler, her sharp cheekbones positioned above what appears a very ugly sneer. Her detractors, of whom there are many, like to call her “cockroach” — supposedly for surviving changes in political tides.

No doubt Credlin is a shining example of the scrutiny women can face when they wield “too much” power. She is not prone to smile for the camera, and her style is abrasive, obsessive, centralized and controlling. But it is worth asking, as Abbott has, whether she’d get the same flack if her name were spelled P-E-T-E-R. As it is, many blame her for painful friction within the ruling Liberal-National Coalition that’s left the government reeling. Within the month, observers say, Abbott could face a no-confidence vote, and Australians are now perched on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if the pair will tumble down together.

Credlin grew up in a small town in the state of Victoria debating politics with her father, who taught her to “speak up and speak out,” she said in a speech at her former school. A bright student, she spent a “gap year” after her law degree not backpacking around Thailand or volunteering, but writing speeches for a senator. Credlin was also grieving her father’s sudden death. (She’s credited him with building her confidence and encouraging her to speak up.)

In many ways, Credlin has just become a lightning rod for an administration that’s plagued by deeper structural problems.

Credlin had served as chief of staff to a couple of opposition leaders; Abbott snatched her up in 2009, when he became leader of the Coalition. A devout Catholic with traditional values, Abbott had sat stony-faced in Parliament as then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard stormed that he only “needed a mirror” to see misogyny in modern Australia. Credlin came in handy. In early 2013, she appeared in a controversial spread for Marie Claire magazine, pitched to boost Abbott’s popularity with women. (In it, she called herself a “right-wing feminist,” spoke about her difficulties with IVF and argued that her boss’s views on women were more nuanced than they seemed.)

When Abbott won power that September on a rather right-wing agenda — he promised to stop the refugee boats, scrap the carbon tax and get the budget back on track — Credlin was at his side. And she quickly became the door to the PM that refused to open and had a tendency to roar, besides: deciding who he saw, sitting in on Cabinet meetings and appointing staff: “Everyone right down to the electoral staff had to be OK’d by the PM’s office at one point,” Fairfax’s Canberra political correspondent Heath Aston recalled. The intention may have been to build a strong foundation for the Liberals, who were newcomers, but “it backfired and came off as micromanagement.”

It also came to seem that Credlin wielded more power than officials who’d been elected. (Her own marriage, to Liberal Party boss Brian Loughnane, didn’t help.) The anger boiled into Parliament where Sen. Ian Macdonald snapped that he wouldn’t stand for “unelected advisers in the prime minister’s office” telling elected politicians what to do. Even Rupert Murdoch joined a rising chorus against Credlin, tweeting that if Abbott wouldn’t replace her, “she must do her patriotic duty and resign.” And in February, Abbott was shaken by a no-confidence vote of 40 percent. Critics demanded he sack Credlin, but he refused to.

But in many ways, Credlin has just become a lightning rod for an administration that’s plagued by deeper structural problems, says Anne Tiernan, a professor in Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations. Abbott’s budget faces a $17 billion hole and deficits until 2018, but anger over cuts, particularly to health and education, saw the PM’s public approval rating dive and helped push the Liberal-National Coalition out of power in two states.

Tiernan says Credlin isn’t doing her job vastly different from her predecessors, her central command style being a syndrome of modern politics — “the West Wing-ization of the central executive,” she says.

With her tenure seemingly precarious, speculation is rife Credlin will move into politics. But Uhr doesn’t think she’s “happy local member” material, more a forceful policy adviser, with “people just like her all around the White House.”

Wherever Credlin makes her next move, Australia will be watching.

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