Road to Ruin, by Niki Savva

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Clare confided that in her previous life, not long after she had agreed to join the staff of former Labor minister Greg Combet, she was told that if she wanted to know what her life would be like as a press secretary, she should read my book, So Greek. She reached the bit where, early one day, my old boss, the treasurer, Peter Costello, sent the receptionist, Philippa, to get me out of the toilet in his Melbourne office, and I ended the same day by dropping the F-bomb on him in his Sydney hotel suite. This experience appeared in the opening pages, providing the title for what I thought would be my one-and-only book. Clare wobbled when she read that passage. She lasted six months in the job.

This is a book about Australian politics, of which I know little despite four years working for one of its more memorable characters. (He is quoted twice, one on the "Relevance Deprivation Syndrome" that hits politicians who have been removed from office, and once on Bronwyn Bishop: "Why do people take an instant dislike to her? It saves time.")

The story told is of the collapse of the government of Tony Abbott, who won the September 2013 election for the Liberal Party (as you know, Bob, the Liberals in Australia are the main right-wing party) and was then thrown out by his own MPs just before his second anniversary in power, six months ago. Savva is a journalist, but a journalist with a privileged position; she makes no secret of her support for the Liberals, who employ her husband and who she has worked for herself; and she somewhat obsessively tracks the last text messages sent by the protagonists to herself and to those she is friendly with. It's also a book written for those with more knowledge of and interest in Australian politics than I have; many crucial points of reference are simply not explained to the reader (eg the Bronwyn Bishop helicopter affair). The structure and style are journalistic rather than analytical, which I sometimes find tiresome.

But at the same time, it's a great study of how a political career can crash and burn. Two political careers, in fact, because Abbott's right hand (and occasionally brain and mouth) throughout his leadership, Peta Credlin, is portrayed as a key factor in his failure – centralising information flow, bullying staffers and political colleagues, leaking important stories to selected journalists (Savva seems never to have been one of them), demanding and getting special treatment way beyond the norm for her office. Abbott's key failing was that he took no interest in what other people thought, in particular his MPs but indeed Australians as a whole; Credlin's failing was that she protected him rather than help him deal with the problem, to the point that she became part of the problem herself.

Savva has been criticised for concentrating so much fire on Credlin, in the context of the atrocious misogyny directed at Julia Gillard during her term as Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013, and in particular for her coverage of the rumours that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. But in fact she finds the rumours unfounded (though their relationship was clearly one of deep and unhealthy co-dependence) and it is hardly Savva's fault that the rumours were circulating. One could have wished for a more forensic interrogation of why there are always rumours of this kind in this sort of situation, but she actually isn't all that interested in it, unlike some of her readers.

In any case, she is very clear that responsibility for reining Credlin in rested with Abbott, and he failed to exercise it. I found it fascinating that the two key moments which prompted rebellions against him – one unsuccessful in February, and the successful one in September – were only marginally related to policy issues at all. The precipitating issue in February was Abbott's decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip, which attracted widespread criticism for being tone-deaf and an unnecessary investment of political capital when there were much more serious problems to address. Abbott survived the February push, and promised to listen more in future. But his disastrous handling of an internal party discussion on same-sex marriage in August, which achieved the remarkable feat of deeply enraging both sides of the argument, was the final straw in convincing a majority to get rid of him – and the problem was not the policy itself, but the way in which Abbott dealt with it.

Savva's hour-by-hour account of how the coup was executed is the core of the book, and is very good writing. (The other really good passage is a historical description of how his staffers dealt with the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who went swimming in the sea one day in 1967 and never came back.) On the backbenches, Abbott appears to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing – he blames his fall on "white-anting", an Australianism (that I had to look up) referring to termites undermining buildings; in other words, he was undermined because he was being undermined. He continues to ungraciously snipe at his successor, to Savva's dismay; she makes it clear that Abbott's behaviour risked and still risks bringing about what she regards as the ultimate catastrophe, the return to power of the Labour Party. I think reasonable people can disagree with her on that last point!

Thanks to Ryan Heath of POLITICO for flagging this up to me.