Books Australia

Cods wallop

10 March 2016

3:00 PM

10 March 2016

3:00 PM

One might hope that as a Hellene, Niki Savva could shed some light on the tragedy of the Abbott government and the panicked decision of his colleagues to replace him less than two years after he returned them to government.

It’s a drama that is still playing out as the Turnbull government grapples with the destabilising consequences of regicide and the challenge of crafting an election-winning economic narrative.

This is not an easy task and Savva has done Prime Minister Turnbull no favours in airing what amounts to the government’s soiled linen in public. Which is ironic, because Savva makes it clear that Turnbull is her preferred PM.

Savva’s thesis is simple and summed up in the book’s title – The Road to Ruin – how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government. Critics in the Abbott camp could probably suggest a few other titles such as Beware of Greeks bearing Grudges, or Tony Abbott: My Part in his Downfall.

There is nothing wrong with Savva – a self-styled ‘conservative leftie’ – writing her account of the failings of Team Abbott. But even the most passionate supporter of Savva would admit it comes across as a tad unbalanced. Or if we are thinking Greek, as a touch Manichaean.

Savva has a nice turn of phrase and a sharp eye for detail but the book reads like a catalogue of complaints in which everybody is polite, decent and well meaning except the hapless PM and his foul-mouthed sidekick.

In this it resembles those reductionist histories that choose one specific and somewhat obscure object, which is meant to explain life, the universe and everything. Mark Kurlansky, for example, wrote a book called Cod – a biography of the Fish that changed the world. It was, as a review in the Smithsonian put it, a ‘cod-angled look at European and North American history’.

Kurlansky followed up with The Big Oyster, which told the story of New York ‘by following the trajectory of one of its most fascinating inhabitants–the oyster’. And then a book about the Basques in which Kurlansky claimed they had influenced everything from religion and sports to commerce.

As the cod was to Kurlansky, so Credlin is to Savva – a force so powerful, and in this case so malign – that no other explanation is necessary.

Relentlessly, in incident after incident, Credlin is to blame – a hybrid of Lady Macbeth and Rasputin, with Abbott portrayed as a spineless fool in the thrall of this potty-mouthed dominatrix.

Perhaps there is some kernel of truth in all of this but the reader cannot but end up feeling sorry for the protagonists who are rendered as two-dimensional as Tom and Jerry, or Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, while Malcolm Turnbull is just an accidental leader who is forced by circumstance to step in and save the country.

No doubt there are many people who see the world like this but Savva unnecessarily damages her own credibility as a journalist by not even trying to speak to the key figures. Worse, she compounds the perception of intractable bias by defending her decision with the blunt accusation, ‘Why should I peddle their lies?’

The lowest point in the book is when it descends into shabby speculation about whether Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Where was the evidence? What was the public interest? There was seemingly none on either count. Savva now says the nature of the relationship was immaterial. So, why write a latter-day What the Chamber Maid Saw?

Unlike their UK or US counterparts, Australian journalists have largely steered clear of muckraking and public polling shows Australians prefer it this way. But none of this seemed to trouble the ABC, which dignified the scuttlebutt with a discussion on its Insiders program, even though commentator Piers Akerman was banned from the program, in 2013, just for condemning sexual gossip about Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s partner.

The most incredible claim in the book is that on September 14 when MPs voted to replace Abbott it was really to remove Credlin. According to Savva, government MPs ‘came to realise that if they wanted to be rid of her, they also had to get rid of him. Their view was, if that’s what it took, so be it. He was collateral damage, one of them said later to a former Abbott staffer.’

This really is a ‘cod-angled’ view of events. Or perhaps ‘carp-angled’, since this is Canberra – so far from the sea, so close to Lake Burley Griffin, its murky waters infested with bottom-feeding pests.

If it were true it would suggest the Liberal party had sunk to even lower depths than Labor, who at least got rid of a Prime Minister because they didn’t like him. To get rid of a PM because you didn’t like his advisor would be farcical and rather an indictment of the people in question as grown-ups, let alone MPs and ministers.

It seems far more likely that fear about whether the government would win the next election and whether MPs would hold on to their seats in marginal electorates was the deciding factor. Still, Savva’s narrative took hold in the media, even with some journalists who were not a priori anti-Abbott. And as it gathered momentum it took on the air of a witch-hunt.

Unfortunately, a myopic obsession with personalities blinds commentators to the real issue. Abbott’s government inherited a diabolical challenge. Labor had locked in enormous and rapidly expanding, unfunded spending. Yet Labor, the Greens and most of the independents in the Senate were not prepared to countenance the government’s spending cuts.

Abbott and Credlin have gone but the challenge remains, as difficult for Turnbull to tackle as it was for his predecessors. On this sadly, The Road to Ruin has little to offer. If you want to know about The World According To Carp, read Savva. If you want to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Abbott government and where the country is headed, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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