During the height of the shambolic shenanigans that so marked the all-too-long Abbott tenure as Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott accused his colleagues of sexism in their concerns about his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.
This morning Mr Abbott said Ms Credlin would not be so heavily scrutinised if she was a male.
“Do you really think my chief of staff would be under this kind of pressure if her name was P-E-T-E-R instead of P-E-T-A?,’’ he told the ABC News.
“I think people need to take a long, hard look at themselves with some of these criticisms.”
Tony Abbott sexism gaffe: when will performance triumph over gender? news.com.au, Melissa Hoyer, December 12 2014.
I’ve just finished reading “The Road to Ruin” by Niki Savva. It’s been an interesting read for me; normally books detailing the downfall of political parties, groups or individuals are written by those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The right writes about the left, and the left the right. But not in this case. Niki Savva is on almost every page of the book a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, and wastes no time skewering the ALP in the book whenever the opportunity presents itself. (As a disclaimer, I’ve voted: Liberal, Labor, Sex Party, Greens and Independent in various elections, and have no membership of any political party.)
Through the entire book I kept thinking back to Abbott’s quip about the name – and by inference the gender – being all the difference in the way Peta Credlin was treated. This gender disparity has been discussed at length in the media this week, with people jumping in on both sides of the argument.
There’s a lot in the book that falls into the he-said/she-said category: Abbott and Credlin have firmly denied large chunks of the book, whereas Savva stands by what she wrote and there’s an increasing number of people coming out and verifying her versions of events.
I can’t speak for the veracity of the comments in the book so I’ll speak from an assumptive perspective: hypothetically, let’s imagine that the majority of the claims in the book are correct. If we accept this to be the case, then would a P-e-t-e-r have been treated differently than a P-e-t-a in the role?
Would a P-e-t-e-r have been sacked for workplace bullying?
Two of my prior jobs featured me wearing the brunt of workplace bullying; in one it was in the form of passive-aggressive abuse of staff, but in the other it was more insidious and deliberately targeted, and ultimately ended in me quitting in disgust.
There’s a lot of anecdotes in the book which look an awful lot like textbook cases of what we’d consider to be outright aggressive workplace bullying. There were a few standout examples:
“If the prime minister had a bad question time … Credlin would call an emergency meeting of all staff as soon as she got back to the office. It was not unusual for chiefs of staff to do this when things went awry. But her way of handling it was certainly different.
“‘It was basically to tell us loudly how hopeless we all were,’ a senior adviser said.”
The Road to Ruin, Niki Savva, Scribe, 2016, 9781925307542.
“They recall she was particularly tough on finance adviser Kathryn Lees. Less would be called into the office, where she would be screamed at over something going wrong that had not been her fault. It was so loud, with Credlin telling her she was hopeless, useless, or incompetent – the usual rant – that others in the office could hear. Or she would simply do it in front of other staff. They would roll their eyes, then comfort one another later, the stronger ones knowing they had not done anything wrong. It was just ‘Peta being Peta.'”
“As they got out of the lift, Credlin asked Boyce a question. He didn’t know the answer offhand, so he told her he would get it for her in a minute. It seemed innocuous enough, but for some reason she lost her temper. She began yelling at Boyce, telling him he was incompetent and that he wasn’t up to his job. He tried to tell her to calm down, that he would get her what she wanted. She got angrier still, and continued yelling.
And, relating the experiences of Fiona Telford, who joined the offices of Helen Coonan, thinking working with Peta Credlin would be a great opportunity:
“Fiona began working in the Coonan office in 2007. The belittling, the intimidation, began early, with name-calling and finger-pointing in front of colleagues. It built up to intolerable levels. Telford had to get across a huge amount of technical detail in a very short space of time, but it was clearly not fast enough for Credlin.
“Fiona remembers Credlin in the office that evening in full flight, finger pointing, yelling at Fiona, calling her ‘a fucking useless bitch’, telling her ‘you don’t fucking know anything’. She went home in tears.”
These are just a few of the stories in The Road to Ruin detailing the alleged behaviour of Peta Credlin to her staff – in a variety of different positions. Just a few – there’s a lot of them.
At the start of Chapter Two, Savva quotes a Peta Credlin interview with the Australian Woman’s Weekly from 22 September 2015 (The Women of the Future Awards), where Credlin said:
“If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong. If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail.”
As it is, I’m not suggesting women get away with being workplace bullies, and – weirdly, by the end of the book, I’ve come to the conclusion that P-e-t-e-r Credlin would have got away with the same behaviour as P-e-t-a Credlin, and for one simple reason: workplace relations seems to live in its own bubble once we enter a certain sphere of politics.
I’ve heard a multitude of stories over the years from civil servants about the incredibly precise language they have to use with each other to discuss anything that may be deemed even remotely sensitive. Recounted stories sound like exchanges between the goofy gophers – five minute preambles before something as simple as “that dress is a great colour”, or so circuitously walking around a point to avoid mentioning “FTE reduction” that even Sir Humphrey Appleby would have no idea what was being said.
But once we reach a certain level of politics, it seems the gloves come off. Sexual harassment gets discounted as foolish antics, pugnacious threats of intense personal violence is considered tough, merciless haranguing of someone despite the ongoing emotional toll is fair game, and talking about stuffing a sitting prime minister in a burlap sack and throwing her in the sea is considered a robust conversation.
And screaming at staff – calling them “fucking incompetent”, and all the variations thereof, in front of their colleagues, is dealt with neither professionally or ethically.
It seems from the book that P-e-t-e-r Credlin would have been treated the same way as P-e-t-a Credlin was, but only from the luxury of being in the highest levels of politics. I’d suggest instead that if P-e-t-e-r Credlin or P-e-t-a Credlin had been in enterprise employment and behaved the way the book described, said Credlin would have been sacked for workplace bullying, and gender be damned.