Tony Abbott staffer 'a control freak'

The tight circle that surrounds Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shrugged it off as a verbal hand grenade tossed by an embittered member overlooked for promotion.

But Senator Ian Macdonald's public accusation that Mr Abbott's office, led by senior aide Peta Credlin, has instilled a culture of "obsessive centralised control" in the government has struck a chord among sections of the Coalition.

Rumblings of discontent have been growing since the election win in September.

The strict media control of ministers by the Prime Minister's office has been reported but a bigger irritant for Coalition members and staffers has been a tight grip on appointments by Ms Credlin and the so-called "star chamber" staff appointments panel she heads.

A Coalition member told Fairfax Media: "The level of control is far in excess of the Howard government at its peak. It's Peta Credlin who is the problem, she's a control freak and this is feeding into all sorts of things."

The selection of government members for committees is now being done from "on high", whereas in the past, MPs and senators had been given a level of freedom to sort out appointments among themselves.

"All these things are rigidly coming from Abbott's office. People are not happy," said a member of the government.

A number of ministers have been bruised by dealings with the star chamber, which is made up of Ms Credlin, Liberal ministers Michael Ronaldson and Kevin Andrews, Ms Credlin's deputy, Andrew Hirst, and David Whitrow, the chief of staff to Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss.

Unofficial members are Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane - Ms Credlin's husband - and John Howard's former chief of staff, Tony Nutt, who was hired to oversee the transition to government.

Fairfax Media can reveal that at least a third of Tony Abbott's 19-member cabinet have had senior staffing appointments either knocked back or imposed on them by the Peta Credlin-led appointments panel, known as the "star chamber".

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Senate leader Eric Abetz, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have all been overruled by the staffing panel or had senior advisers "imposed" on their offices.

Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos has also had a potential chief of staff vetoed.

Senator Abetz clashed with the star chamber over his intention to retain his longtime chief of staff in opposition, Chris Fryar. Mr Fryar has been kept on rolling short-term contracts as a senior adviser.

Senator Abetz told a Senate estimates hearing last week: "At the end of the day it was decided by the Prime Minister as to who would be appointed to my ministerial staff and to the staff of my ministerial colleagues,"

As revealed by Fairfax, Ms Credlin has insisted that all 420 government staff appointments right down to junior electorate officers are approved by the panel.

In a fiery speech in the Parliament, Senator Macdonald outlined why he was insisting on amending the terms of reference approved by the Prime Minister's office to include a look at zonal taxation and a shorter timeframe for the committee to report.

"I was particularly disappointed as my many inquiries to the Prime Minister's office, which seems to have an almost obsessive centralised control phobia over this and every other aspect of Parliament, responded to me when I kept inquiring with, 'We will let you know when the terms of reference are eventually decided'," he said.

"The terms of reference submitted by the government may be the Prime Minister's office's version of what it was all about, but I have to advise them and my constituents that I will not have unelected advisers in the Prime Minister's office telling elected politicians, who are actually in touch with their constituencies, what should and should not be done."

Before the election, Senator Macdonald was the shadow parliamentary secretary for northern and remote Australia.

When he was informed by Mr Abbott in September that he would not be part of the ministry he described it as "the worst day in his life". 

A spokesman for Mr Abbott declined to comment.

smh.com.au

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