Below is the full text of Laurie's speech:
When I first read it a few weeks ago, I thought: ‘The Road To Ruin would make a great movie’. Turns out, though, it’s already been done. The film The Road To Ruin came out in 1934, which demonstrated, I think, remarkable foresight. And this is interesting. It was not allowed to be shown to anyone under 18, because it contained salacious material. That might clarify one of the mysteries surrounding the response to Niki Savva’s work. Some of the critics obviously got the book and the film confused.
Because there’s nothing salacious in the book. To portray it as prurient or sleazy, as some have, in a couple of cases proudly admitting at the same time to not having read the book, or not having read all of it, is not only ridiculous. It’s quite dishonest. Niki’s Road to Ruin is, in fact, one of the best political books published in this country for a long time. A cabinet minister, in a text message to me a few days ago, described it as a “pearl”. It’s a serious book and it’s an important book. Its main crime, I suggest, is not to be boring.
It’s a sad truth that too many boring books are written and published about politics. Some unkind people might say that I have contributed to the problem myself. But it’s one accusation that has not been levelled at Niki. And it can’t be.
The sales figures attest to that. The Road to Ruin is selling well outside the cohort of people who normally follow the ins and outs of politics closely. It’s broken out of the beltway and into the mainstream. Aaron Patrick’s book, Credlin and Co., covering the same period, has also sold well. People are eager to read about this stuff. They’re fascinated by it. They want to find out how and why Tony Abbott, assisted by his chief of staff and others, blew it so badly. They want to understand how Abbott attained the highest office in the land and then threw it away again in the space of a couple of years. It’s innately interesting. And Niki makes it more so.
She does that partly through a racy tabloid style. There’s nothing wrong with that. It makes life easier for the reader. She also grabs the reader’s interest through the inclusion of terrific anecdotes, many of them entertaining and all illustrating an aspect of the train wreck that was the Abbott prime ministership. She does it by digging out and presenting information that’s new — that hasn’t been reported before. She was always a news breaker.
But most importantly, Niki makes this book interesting by bringing a strong point of view to her telling of the story. This is not an impartial book. It’s not down-the-middle reporting. It is not an example of he-said-she-said journalism. Far from it. Niki has very firm opinions on what went wrong under Abbott, why it went wrong, and whose fault it was. She doesn’t hide those opinions, and it’s a better book for it.
Niki is eminently qualified to hold such opinions. She knows what she’s talking about. She’s been involved with politics for 40-plus years, both on the outside as a Press Gallery journalist and on the inside as a staffer to Peter Costello and then John Howard. She knows how successful political offices work. Having served in the cabinet office, she’s seen up close how the cabinet process should operate. Also, she was involved in the selling of the GST, so her political nous and judgement have been tested in the heat of battle. She’s entitled to conduct a post-mortem on the Abbott government. And her conclusions are worth treating with respect.
The Abbott-Credlin relationship and the problems arising from it form a continuing theme throughout The Road To Ruin. Hence the subtitle — how Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin destroyed their own government. It takes us deep inside the prime minister’s office, and reveals extraordinary dysfunction. This is one of the things that makes it such a significant book. We’re talking about the most powerful office in the country. The goings-on inside that office affect us all. What Niki gives us is the kind of insider’s view that we’ve never had before. Even Kevin Rudd’s office was never laid bare like this. It’s a picture that derives considerable authority from the surprising number of people — ex-staffers and others — who were prepared to speak to the author on the record.
The Road To Ruin deals with the way Abbott gave a staffer the kind of power that should belong to elected politicians, and the way she used — or misused —that power. The way ministers and MPs were alienated. The way Abbott was cut off from his colleagues and from alternative sources of advice. The way Credlin’s micro-managing style — known as ‘command and control’ — choked government processes. The way people who had served, and gained experience of governing, in the Howard years, got the cold shoulder. The way cabinet government was undermined, and captain’s calls turned into disasters. The way Credlin even took over media management from the press office professionals, and the consequences of that. The way her volatile temperament caused ructions and distractions. And so on.
It’s silly for anyone to suggest that such matters as Abbott’s unusual dependency on Credlin should not be written about. It is part of the history of the Abbott government, integral to the explanation of his abrupt transformation from rooster to feather duster.
And it’s absolute garbage to suggest, as former editor and current radio shock-jock David Penberthy did in a newspaper column, that: ‘It seems the big question is whether they (Abbott and Credlin) were getting it on.’ Speculation about an affair is dealt with in less than two pages. Two pages out of 326.
What’s more, they’re two pages that could not possibly have been left out. Think about it. The government is in crisis, with the prime minister who won office less than 18 months earlier shocked to find himself facing a spill motion. The night before the vote, Liberal senator Concetta Fierrevanti-Wells, who is a front-bencher and one of his supporters, goes to Abbott’s office to deliver what she tells him is ‘the brutal truth’ — that he’s in danger of losing the prime ministership unless his chief of staff is moved on. Why? Because Credlin’s treatment of government MPs, and the belief that she is cutting him off from them, is causing great resentment in Liberal ranks. Also, Fierrevanti-Wells warns, there’s a perception that he is sleeping with his chief of staff, and he needs to deal with that perception. Otherwise he’ll be cactus.
If that incident is not seriously relevant to the story of Abbott’s loss of support, his alienation from his party, nothing is.
What do you think would have happened if one of Penberthy’s political reporters had filed a yarn like that when he was editor of the Daily Telegraph? Does anyone really believe he’d have spiked it? I reckon he’d be complaining that there wasn’t a type face big enough to do the headline justice.
It wasn’t gossip. It was from the horse’s mouth. One of the horses, anyway. It’s as well-sourced as you’d get. From Fierravanti-Wells herself, and she’s publicly confirmed it since the book’s publication. As for the argument that Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin should have been given the chance to deny the rumours of an affair … their denials are prominently reported in the book.
They each denied it firmly to Fierrevanti-Wells, and what they said is faithfully reported by Niki (though you’d never know it from the scribblings of Penbo and his ilk). Niki writes that Abbott told the senator the rumours were not true, and adds for good measure: ‘He did not remonstrate or raise his voice. He simply, calmly, denied it.’ So Abbott’s denial is there twice. Two paragraphs later, we read: ‘Credlin also denied it, saying it was not true, that they were not having a relationship’. That’s three denials in one sentence.
Which brings me to what some here might think of as the elephant in the room: the question of whether Niki should have run all her material past Abbott and Credlin, and sought reaction. It’s something we’ll all have to make up our own minds about. I’d point out, though, that there would be significant practical problems in doing that. We’re not just talking about a few anecdotes or allegations. And there’s the issue of how much value there would be if you didn’t believe the answers anyway.
The first response from Abbott’s people to the book, I think, was prompted by the anecdote about the chief of staff feeding the prime minster from her plate with her fork in an Italian restaurant. Nonsense, said the Abbott camp. Tony ‘doesn’t do carbs’, so why would he be at an Italian restaurant? Well, I’ve seen him eating carbs. The whole world has seen video of him eating an onion. And, of course, photographs of him in an Italian restaurant quickly bobbed up on social media.
The PMO under Abbott and Credlin was notorious for misleading journalists. I bounced one of their media staff out of our bureau once when he was openly boasting that he’d fooled the Press Gallery over something. In the end I took everything that came out of the Abbott PMO with a dirty big grain of salt, so I can certainly understand Niki’s decision to go with sources she trusted.
Louise Adler, who produced an op-ed in defence of the Abbott-Credlin duo, referred to ‘laughable gossip’ in the book. It’s worth quoting The Financial Review’s Phil Coorey on this. Phil tweeted: ‘Louise Adler of MUP, publisher of The Latham Diaries, call’s SAVVA’s book cheap gossip. #lol.’ Adler specifically refers to Niki’s analysis of ‘Choppergate’, the scandal that brought down Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker. Bronnie has since said the Niki version is accurate, so to dismiss it as gossip is just stupid.
Others, of course, have come forward to attest publicly to the accuracy of aspects of the book — including John Howard, confirming that he, like so many others, had advised his one-time protégé to shuffle Credlin and Joe Hockey out of their jobs, but had been ignored. I don’t detect much gossip in The Road To Ruin.
Inevitably, with such a tough book, there’s been a questioning of motives, so it’s worth pointing out, I think, that Niki understood Tony Abbott, his strengths and his flaws, pretty well before he became Liberal leader. She certainly had reservations about him, and expressed them in her first book, So Greek. They were reservations based on his performance, not on anything personal.
To make a successful PM, she wrote in So Greek, Abbott would need to move further to the centre, and he’d need to take advice from a much wider circle. His failure to do those things, especially widening his sources of advice, is a key part of the message in The Road To Ruin.
Also in So Greek — and remember, this was six years ago — Niki commented that ‘Abbott’s judgement veers into unsafe territory at times.’ That proved to be dead right, as demonstrated by the disastrous captain’s calls that played such a major role in his self-destruction as prime minister. But even the Greek author of So Greek couldn’t have predicted the knighting of Phil the Greek.
Far from being an Abbott-hater, though, Niki had a shrewd and very positive view of how effective he would be as opposition leader. He had ‘no shortage of ticker’, she wrote. He would make ‘a clever and gutsy opposition leader’. And she predicted — listen to this — that he ‘would rattle Kevin Rudd’s cage like a great white shark sniffing out blood in the water’. How right was she about that?
For a long time after the coalition came to office, Niki believed Abbott would adjust to the role of prime minister. ‘He’ll come good,’ she would say, as many others did who wanted him to succeed. But he never did come good. He wasn’t up to the job. He failed to learn from his mistakes. And Peta Credlin, who had managed to keep him focused and disciplined in opposition, overplayed her hand in government and gradually became a liability.
The Road To Ruin examines in detail the various crises and stuff-ups of Abbott’s reign, in every case uncovering new information and producing new insights. The prose is pithy, with no punches pulled. I love, for example, Niki’s description of how the Abbott government botched the task of preparing the ground for its first budget. She writes: ‘Everyone knew the drill. Get the independent (commission of audit) report out early, go through the Oh My God, it’s much worse than I thought routine, wait for it to sink in, lay the groundwork for the budget, then bring down a tough but tamer document.’ Simple, but Abbott and Co. couldn’t pull it off. She writes: ‘They ignored all the tried-and-tested rules of politics’. It was something they kept doing.
This book contains easily the most detailed, colourful, and accurate account there is of the plot that brought Abbott down and installed Malcolm Turnbull in his place. Even one of the key plotters told me he’d learned things from the book that he hadn’t known at the time. Niki also gives us an account of how woefully unprepared the Abbott camp was to meet a leadership challenge, despite having received a series of warnings that Turnbull’s people were on the move. Here, too, Niki is able to name and quote her sources — pro-Abbott insiders.
As I said, an important book, but an easy read. It lifts the lid off political events in a way not often seen. And it is chockers with lessons about how politics should not be done. But there’s also, I think, a wryly amusing aspect to all this. Given the way things have gone in the last month or two, couldn’t the Turnbull government use a bit more command-and-control? A little touch of Credlin? Just a thought.
I declare The Road To Ruin launched — but with a warning that anyone who takes the likes of Andrew Bolt, David Penberthy, and Louise Adler seriously and buys it for the sex will do their dough.