Below is the full text of Niki's speech:
In my acknowledgements, I describe Laurie Oakes as the best of the best. He is, in so many ways. He is the best of friends, and the best journalist in the country, and he has been for decades. So thank you so much, Laurie and Henry, for once again doing the honours. Six years ago, I was convinced it would be the one and only time we would all be standing here to launch a book written by me.
I certainly never thought I would write a book about Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership. I confess I doubted Abbott would ever be prime minister. Got that one wrong.
Before he got there, I had heard enough about the way he and his office operated to harbour doubts about how he would go. However, I thought he would last longer as a prime minister than I would as a born-again columnist, because it seemed inconceivable that he would not make the changes necessary to ensure that he did last. Got that one wrong, too.
Ten months into his tenure, in the middle of a handshake, he asked me to stop criticising his chief of staff, and when I asked him why, he said because his own ministers could not be trusted to tell the truth. With the alarm bells ringing in my head, I concluded this was an untenable dynamic at the head and the heart of the government that would bring them both down. Abbott left his colleagues with no choice but to remove him from office.
He ignored every single warning, almost every single piece of advice from his MPs, from his friends, from his staff as they walked out the door, even from John Howard. He was culpable in every sense; then, when it was over, he refused to accept responsibility for what had happened, preferring to blame others, including Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison, and the media.
In his grief, his rage, his self-pity, he blamed them all, branding his colleagues traitors. The fact is, none of them could have saved him even if they had wanted to, because he refused to do a few simple things to save himself.
He earned his own dismissal by refusing to restructure his office, by repeatedly making captain’s calls, all of which were disasters, by failing to consult more widely, and by his continuous display of poor judgement, culminating in his ham-fisted attempt to blindside his own MPs in the same-sex marriage debate.
He never learned from his mistakes. He stood by and allowed his ministers, his backbenchers, his staff — even his wife — to be treated appallingly by his chief of staff. Worse than that, he refused to act on the complaints, when they were made to him, urging people to apologise to her or he ignored them.
There is no denying Abbott was a hugely successful opposition leader — a role he has resumed inside the government, with enthusiasm — but he fell well short of what many Australians expected of a prime minister. In conversations with me, Liberals would often bracket him with Billy McMahon. It didn’t have to be like that, but Abbott squandered something hard won and extremely precious. Ever since, he has blamed others for his demise.
The longer he continues to play the victim, the longer she plays the gender card, the longer their suffering will endure. Their pursuit of enemies might bring short-term satisfaction, but it will do nothing to help their rehabilitation. There will be no coming back from this for Abbott. He is not Menzies; he is not Churchill; he is not even Kevin Rudd, except in a bad way.
Add to his list of broken promises the one where he pledged the day after he was voted out that he would not snipe or wreck or undermine. Not that he will admit to that one either, and while he has been unable to move on, his party and most of the rest of the country has.
There are people who say that Peta Credlin has been unfairly blamed for what happened. I agree that ultimately Abbott was responsible for all of it. However, she does not deserve to be exonerated. She behaved in ways that would be illegal or completely unacceptable in any other workplace. Ultimately we are all responsible for own actions. It is never good enough to say, ‘I was following orders’, or ‘I had the boss’s approval when I was doing it.’
When it was over, Abbott and Credlin took issue with his former staffers for accepting jobs in the new Turnbull administration. He also tried to talk them out of speaking to me for this book. Having tolerated their poor treatment for years, he then sought to encourage them to keep it quiet. The word ‘cover-up’ springs to mind.
If both Abbott and Credlin had shown flawless judgement, such bad behaviour might not have mattered so much, but it would have caught up with them eventually.
The first ministry, with only one woman in cabinet, where again Abbott ignored the explicit advice of Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, and Christopher Pyne, rankled with women all the way through to his demise. The first budget was disastrous in its preparation, its execution, and its marketing. Abbott never recovered from it. Policy was flawed, process was ignored, personnel who offered alternative views were eliminated or isolated. The media, unsurprisingly, has focussed on the conversations between Concetta Fierravanti-Wells with the former prime minister and his chief of staff. In their rush to express sympathy for Credlin, many journalists, including women, have neglected a number of other important discussions recorded in the book. I will name but a few:
Credlin screaming at Fiona Telford, telling her she was an effing useless bitch; yelling at Kathryn Lees, using similar language; accusing Suzanne Kascprzack of incompetence, even though she had managed to handle John Howard’s diary for years; or assembling staff to tell them how hopeless they were at the top of her voice, complete with F-bombs, all the while asserting she was the only competent person in the office.
Or how about Abbott’s conversation with Warren Entsch on same-sex marriage, where Abbott somehow neglected to tell his own deputy and most of his colleagues that the debate was coming up that day, which was the last straw for some key allies.
Or how about his discussions with the head of the Audit Commission, Tony Shepherd, where Shepherd pleaded with him to get the report out early to prepare the ground for what would be a tough budget.
Then there were the conversations with Peter Dutton, where Dutton told him months out to dump the Medicare co-payment. Abbott told him if he couldn’t cop it, he should resign.
Or that other conversation where Dutton told Abbott to drop Joe Hockey as treasurer and replace him with Malcolm Turnbull if he wanted to survive as prime minister.
Connie Fierravanti-Wells has copped a fair bit of criticism for revealing her conversations, as have I, but like every other person who spoke to me for this book, she wanted an accurate version of events to be told. She was, like everyone else who advised him, from Rupert Murdoch to John Howard down, trying to help him, trying to get him to see how deeply unhappy his colleagues were, and that if he did not remove Credlin or change his ways, it would cost him his job. The day after Connie delivered the warning, 39 Liberal MPs voted for an empty chair, and a few months later Abbott was deposed. In the context of his demise, this was a valid story, and how people can argue it is not, that she should not have told me, or I should not have written it, is beyond me.
Much has also been made of the fact that I did not get Abbott’s and Credlin’s version of events, although their denials to Connie of an affair were included in the book. It was a conscious decision not to approach them, and I make no apology for it. Firstly, I wanted to provide a voice for all those who had been abused over the years, and were too afraid to speak. Secondly, I knew that if they had got even a whiff of who had spoken to me, they would have pressured them to retract. That is the way that regime operated. Thirdly, I knew Abbott and Credlin would have multiple platforms and multiple acolytes lined up to attack me and the book, no matter what it contained. Fourthly, I knew from experience that whatever they said just could not be trusted.
There are still those who are happy to ignore, excuse, or refuse to report their appalling behaviour. Frankly, I regard that as shameful and unethical. After Abbott tackled me at The Australian’s 50th birthday party, months before he tried to get me sacked, I emailed Henry suggesting another project. He responded positively, asking me to provide a structure for the book, and so on. I began to make notes, just in case, but then I went stone cold. The thought of all the work was daunting, so I took it no further. After the coup, Henry emailed to say how about it.
Now that it’s all over, I am glad I agreed, because people deserve to know what happened and why. That is not to say this book will be the final word. That’s fine — I look forward to the other accounts.
In the meantime, I have a long list of thank yous for those who have stood by me on this one. Firstly, to my dear husband, Vincent Woolcock, for all his help and support. And no, I did not bring down Abbott to get Vincent a job with Malcolm Turnbull, as the angry white male conservative commentators allege. I also want to thank my wonderful family, my brother Steve, his partner Dana, my nephew, Peter, his wife, Maria, and my youngest nephews, Thomas and Christian, for their love and encouragement and for coming from Melbourne tonight. Nephew Andrew and his partner Laura couldn’t make it tonight, but they are with us in spirit. Without all of them I would be nowhere.
One of the first people I called after Henry contacted me was the then editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. I think the second was Laurie. Mitchell did not hesitate to say he would support me, so I thank him for that and for standing by me, and same goes for Laurie. I also thank the former editor, Clive Mathieson, for his support.
I am indebted to Henry for his skilful editing and encouragement, to Cora Roberts for acting as my minder-cum-morale booster, and to all at Scribe for their hard work in getting the book out in such rapid time.
Thanks also to Paperchain for once again providing the venue.
Lastly, and especially, I want to thank the many, many people who agreed to speak to me for this book, as well as for my weekly columns for The Australian. Their trust in me enabled me to record early on the fatal flaws that eventually brought down Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin. Some of them were too frightened to speak out publicly, but many of them did, and they were, almost from the beginning, deeply troubled by what was happening.
I was happy to be their voice. They had a lot more to lose than I did. I also hoped that by making things public, it would force change. It never happened.