Peta Credlin is interesting. She's the female gatekeeper to a man who faces a seemingly unbreakable perception problem with female voters. Ms Credlin, who also staffed former Opposition Leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, inhabits her position with personal determination, and with the support of her well-placed husband Brian Loughnane, Federal Director of the Liberal Party.
While Mr Loughnane has remained relatively invisible outside the dome that separates us from them, Ms Credlin has emerged, crossing from behind the scenes to front page news and minor celebrity. In November 2011, News Limited's weekend colour supplement ran a feature on Ms Credlin. She refused to be interviewed for the story, but let it be known with the Liberal Party that the story was "on". Prominent members of the opposition phoned the journalist Kate Legge to supply exceptional personal references no-one had asked for. Ms Legge concluded that:
"If Abbott stumbles, Credlin will suffer some collateral damage. While his numbers are sweet, she's rock solid. If he goes on to win, her name is on the chief of staff's door. If not, she may pursue political dreams of her own. She once sought the counsel of senior Liberals on a Senate spot. They think she'd be stunning."
Twelve months later, Abbott has stumbled and it may well be due to Ms Credlin’s campaign strategy; his relentless campaign of fear around the carbon tax has failed. His consistent negativity and absence of genuine policy have become noticeable, and his team seem to think that his best chance of reversing the trend is to appeal to women voters.
Yesterday’s News Limited papers feature a new, very personal interview with Ms Credlin conducted by respected political journo Samantha Maiden. Ms Credlin was interviewed at some length on Tony Abbott's supportive response to her attempts to fall pregnant using IVF. The story goes beyond hinting at a gentle, compassionate Tony Abbott.
Australian voters looked up from their Sunday brunches, took another sip of coffee and blinked away the dissonance. Surely this paragon of fairness and approachability that Ms Credlin describes, this generous supporter of Secret Female Stuff, is not the same man who parades his wife and daughters across News Limited's front pages to prove that he and The Women get on just fine?
Yes, it is Tony Abbott all right, Mad Monk and Life Member of the Boys' Club, who has cleared the Shandy Premix out of his personal bar fridge to make way for his Chief of Staff's hormones. It's a generous and discreet gesture in a series of generous, discreet gestures from Tony Abbott.
But no – don’t stop reading, at least, don’t stop reading without taking a few more moments to ponder why in the name of everything holy Ms Credlin would reveal these details. Why would any woman trumpet the whole thing across the national tabloids if not to enhance Tony Abbott's reputation with The Women?
Mr Abbott’s personal approval numbers have fallen below Julia Gillard's, and while the Coalition has plenty of fat left in their 2PP lead, the tumbling trend must be of concern to the Liberal Party, it’s leader Brian Loughnane, and Mr Abbott’s staff, led by Ms Credlin.
Regardless of how high the stakes might be, how many people of either gender would agree to reveal their personal reproductive details to the media to support their boss?
And how much personal discomfort is there now for Ms Credlin - and Mr Loughnane - versus how much 'upside' for the Abbott campaign for the Lodge? Babies are lovely, yet reproduction, particularly assisted reproduction, is private. If Ms Credlin had wanted to discuss her experience as a female executive undergoing IVF, she could have done that in any number of newspapers, magazines and blogs. That Samantha Maiden – a specialist political journalist – wrote the piece is an indication of its purpose.
Just for laughs, let’s remove the personalities and the political context and see what happened: A senior executive with a high profile offered some support to a trusted advisor who confided that she had some special, discreet needs due to a medical situation. He treated her situation with respect and sensitivity…just as my boss would do, and has done. I'd like to think that most bosses at that level would do the same.
Now, let’s remove the emotion: By assisting Ms Credlin to undergo her IVF treatments in private, Mr Abbott ensured that he would not lose her services. Her other option was to take leave during the IVF process, which often lasts for months. Mr Abbott chose the option that best suited his needs as well as hers.
And who thought this story would be a good idea? Which communications professional thought that this story would soften Mr Abbott's image? It has very little relevance to Mr Abbott's unpopularity with women. IVF, pregnancy and babies are not exclusively "women's issues". Mr Abbott himself has referred to it as being about families, and it is, although in 2005, while he was Health Minister in the Howard Government, he advocated cutting government funding for IVF treatment:
TONY ABBOTT: Well, first, I'm not going to comment on pre-Budget speculation but I just do make the point that in any one year, 90 per cent of the women who are accessing IVF have three or fewer cycles.So, what have we learned about Tony Abbott as a result of Ms Credlin's IVF story? He can be a caring boss who knows what's good for him. That's probably not going to impact the hundreds of thousands of women who are still concerned about Mr Abbott’s views on abortion, his reputation for misogynistic behaviour or his links with WorkChoices.
The other point I make is that IVF treatment is not – it's very important obviously – but it's not life saving treatment. There is a sense in which it is an elective procedure and there has to some limit, speaking hypothetically, on what the Government is prepared to spend on things which are non-essential.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Why does there have to be some limit?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, because if non-essential treatment is funded endlessly, medical costs blow out endlessly and responsible governments have to try to ensure that we give good value to tax payers as well as good value to patients.
Whether the Samantha Maiden interview was Ms Credlin’s idea, or came from elsewhere, the decision itself should be examined by the Liberal Party. This interview is no more likely to improve Mr Abbott’s standing with The Women than the countless more photos with Margie and the girls would. If the Liberals are serious about addressing the problem with women, they should stop trying to appeal to women, and release some policies that appeal to voters.
Meanwhile, I wonder who is feeling like the bigger sellout after this interview went to print: Samantha Maiden, for disguising a genuine human interest story to write pro-Abbott propaganda, or Peta Credlin, for exposing her private struggles with IVF in a misguided attempt to promote her boss’s sensitive side.