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Transcript of interview: Sky News, Australian Agenda program: 15 December 2011

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Australian Agenda15 December 2011 Tony Abbott, Opposition LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition  LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition Leader 

Interview with Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader

Sky News Australian Agenda program, 15 December 2011

Peter van Onselen:

Mr Abbott, can I ask you before we get to the particulars of the week and so forth, the

idea of a mining tax, a carbon tax and a pokies reform, if it does get instituted, you've

made it clear, pledges in blood at least as far as the carbon tax go, that you will repeal

these particular policies. I believe you. Labor, however, is trying to argue that it will be

too hard and you may not do it. I want this to be the interview that gets replayed if

you don't do it. Do you guarantee beyond any doubt, under no matter what the

circumstances, even if Labor is obstructionist in the Senate, you will find a way to

repeal the carbon tax?

Tony Abbott:

Yes, I do Peter. This is a bad tax based on a lie. We will oppose it in Opposition. We

will rescind it in Government. I don't expect that the Labor Party will maintain its

support for a carbon tax in Opposition but if they do we will take the appropriate steps

under the constitution to make sure this tax is gone.

Peter van Onselen:

Same goes for the mining tax?

Tony Abbott:

Same goes for the mining tax.

Peter van Onselen:

And pokies reforms if they get instituted along the lines being discussed?

Tony Abbott:

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Well, what I've said on that is that we haven't seen their proposal. But our strong

instinct is against the nanny state. Our strong instinct is that oppositions have a duty to

oppose bad law and governments have a duty to rescind bad law.

Peter van Onselen:

I don't think that the Opposition, if they become the Opposition, the Labor Party would

block in the Senate your carbon tax changes or your mining tax changes either, but if

they do you'd be prepared to go to an election, whatever it takes to get rid of them.

Tony Abbott:

Look, I think the public are sick of dithering government. I think they're sick of

governments which are all spin and no substance. I think they're sick of governments

that say one thing before an election and do the opposite after an election. Now, I

want to be the strongest possible contrast to the current Government and if we are

obstructed in the Parliament we will take the steps available under the constitution to

remove that obstruction.

Paul Kelly:

If we look at the recent polls they show that your personal ratings have taken a hit. Do

you accept that there is a political problem in the sense that many people see you as

being too negative? Will you put a strong emphasis next year on positives?

Tony Abbott:

Well Paul, let's never forget that I am called the Opposition Leader for a reason. It is

the duty of Oppositions to oppose bad Government policy and there's been an

abundance of bad Government policy over the last four years but particularly over the

last 12 months. Now, I have essentially two tasks. The first is to hold a bad

government to account. The second is to develop a positive alternative. Now, at

different points in the electoral cycle the relative weighting changes and I think, you

know, you can be pretty confident, Paul, that as we move further through this term,

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yes, being a credible alternative obviously starts to bulk just as large as holding the

Government to account.

Peter van Onselen:

But you've been wanting an election immediately for a long time. Surely if you want an

election as soon as possible you have to have your policies ready to go as soon as

possible too.

Tony Abbott:

And I believe that if an election were called tomorrow, not that I expect it to be called

tomorrow, we would be in a very strong position to start releasing policies from day

one on the campaign.

Paul Kelly:

I think what you're telling us is that next year there will be more emphasis on the

positive side?

Tony Abbott:

Well, I think what I'm telling you, Paul, is that there has always been considerable

emphasis on the policy side and on the positive side...

Paul Kelly:

But will it be more visible next year?

Tony Abbott:

Well, I think it's been much more visible this year than many people credit. For

instance, we made positive announcements on mental health which...

Paul Kelly:

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I can appreciate that but we're just talking here about political perceptions. Do you

think it's important to be more positive next year?

Tony Abbott:

I think it's important to do your best to ensure that people see you in the best possible

light but every time people accuse me of being negative, Paul, I'm going to talk about

some of the positive things that we've been talking about. Take our mental health

announcements earlier in the year. They shamed the Government into substantially

emulating it. Take our antidumping announcement a few weeks ago, the Government

has substantially emulated that. Our infrastructure announcement that there would be

published cost benefits - benefit analyses before major spending. I mean, these are all

positive announcements that we have committed to in the course of the year. They

haven't always had the attention they deserve but that's life in Opposition.

Paul Kelly:

Sure, I mean, you've wanted to get an election as soon as possible. You've made this

clear both in public and in private. That hasn't happened. We've now seen a change of

numbers on the floor of the House. Do you accept that it's likely the Parliament will

now run full term?

Tony Abbott:

None of us have a crystal ball on this, Paul. It is a very fragile, unstable Government

and they are now dependent on another fragile, unstable parliamentary number, Peter

Slipper. Kevin Rudd, as you said earlier, is feral towards the Prime Minister. I don't

think any of us ought to predict that this Government is likely to last two years. It may,

it may not. We have to be ready for whatever happens.

Paul Kelly:

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But if it does last two years, have you got a game plan to be Opposition Leader for that

two years, to be able to manage the job for that two years? I mean, what many people

say about you is that your approach is short term.

Tony Abbott:

Well, every day brings a new challenge, but every year you've got a plan and the plan

is always to take each day as it comes in terms of critiquing the Government, to

develop your own thinking and your own policies appropriately over that period of


Paul Kelly:

Well, what's your plan for next year?

Tony Abbott:

My plan for next year is to hold the Government to account. I know I'm going to sound

like a cracked record on this Paul. It's to hold a bad Government to account and at the

same time to be more and more acknowledged as a credible alternative.

Peter van Onselen:

We've got Peter Reith sitting in the green room. He was the person that as I

understand, you encouraged to run...

Tony Abbott:

Surely in the blue room.

Peter van Onselen:

Yeah, maybe it's not quite green but that's the terminology.

Tony Abbott:

Yeah, yeah.

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Peter van Onselen:

But he's sitting there, he's the person that reportedly you encouraged to run for Liberal

President before throwing your vote behind Alan Stockdale. He's very keen to see the

Liberal Party step up on industrial relations. Is that something that we might see some

policy announcements next year?

Tony Abbott:

Well, I think it's pretty clear that we have a problem in workplace relations. Australia

has a problem in workplace relations, a problem that we didn't have a couple of years

ago. And it's interesting that over the last few months in particular business is

increasingly coming forward with practical examples of just how difficult things are

under the current workplace regime. Now, this is a good thing because our policy,

when we announce it, will be a response to problems. It won't be an exercise in

ideology. We do have a flexibility problem, we do have a productivity problem,

increasingly we have a militancy problem and our policy will address all of those things

but it will be cautious and careful because where people's livelihoods are at stake,

where people's futures are at risk we want to proceed in a very responsible and careful


Peter van Onselen:

Why won't ideology come into it though? I mean this has been an ideological matter of

faith for the Liberal Party for decades including by John Howard most famously who

you've often described as your main mentor in politics.

Tony Abbott:

Look, I am not an ideological person. I have values, sure, values are very important in

politics but I don't think Australians want or need ideological governments.

Peter van Onselen:

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Quite different space to IR but the issue of gay marriage, it was something that was

obviously centrestage during Labor's national conference. Would you allow a free vote

amongst Liberal MPs on this?

Tony Abbott:

Well Peter, I've obviously been thinking quite a lot about this. I think many people have

been thinking a lot about this and the last thing any of us would want to be is

unsympathetic to gay Australians. We all have gay friends. Many of us have gay

relatives. We've got to be decent. Above all else we've got to have government which

is decent. But, and this is very, very important, I went to the election saying that the

Coalition had a clear policy on this. It wasn't just a personal position, although it is and

will be a personal position, it was the clear policy of the Coalition at the election that

marriage was between a man and a woman. Five times at least during the election

campaign I stated this. A quick check of the transcript shows that Julia Gillard eight

times during the election campaign said that it was Labor policy that marriage was

between a man and a woman and that that would not change in the life of the current

Parliament. Now, you know, I don't believe that credible politicians can say one thing

during an election campaign and do the opposite in the ensuing term of Parliament.

Peter van Onselen:

So no free vote?

Tony Abbott:

Well as I said, our clear party position, marriage is between a man and a woman. Now,

every single member of my Coalition was elected on that position and I don't think we

can break faith with the electorate.

Paul Kelly:

How much pressure are you under from some of your colleagues to give a free vote?

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Tony Abbott:

Well Paul, there will be a lot of talking as you'd expect. I have a shadow cabinet

tomorrow. There will be some discussion of this issue there. We won't finalise a

position until it goes before the party room in the new year. But I think that the

decisive consideration here is the position that we took to the election. We can't be a

political party which says one thing before an election and does differently after an

election because our...

Paul Kelly:

So this is an issue of trust and commitment and promise, is it?

Tony Abbott:

Well as I said Paul, you know, Julia Gillard has a problem in this area. She said before

the election "There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead", she's done the

opposite. Now she said before the election "There will be no gay marriage under the

Government I lead" and plainly she is permitting, or she is planning to permit the

Parliament to debate this issue and many in her party - I mean her party has done a

180 degree about-face on this.

Paul Kelly:

So do you intend to make a political issue of the claim you've just made that Gillard has

broken her promise on this question of gay marriage? Would you make that an issue?

Tony Abbott:

Well, I don't think that this is going to be a political battleground in the same way that

the carbon tax is, for instance. I accept that this is quite a personal thing for many

people, including many Members of Parliament but I think the Australian public will be

very conscious of the fact that this is a Prime Minister who can't be trusted to keep her


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Paul Kelly:

Now, in relation to some of your own colleagues such as Malcolm Turnbull who want a

conscience vote, will you make special arrangements for any members in that sense or


Tony Abbott:

Well, we've got a process to go through Paul, an internal process to go through and, as

I said, it won't be finalised until our party room considers this in the new year. But

every single member of my Coalition went to the last election saying that marriage was

between a man and a woman and that this was our party's position. Every single

member. Now, I know that in their heart of hearts there would probably be a few of my

members who would prefer it to be otherwise, but that was the commitment that every

single one of us took to the election, and look, it's all very well talking about

conscience, conscience is important, we've always respected the rights of conscience

inside the Coalition. But in the end the fundamental duty of a politician is to keep his or

her commitments and I don't see any dramatic change in circumstances. I don't see

any fundamental differences in objective reality today that would justify any change of

a fundamental commitment like that.

Peter van Onselen:

Mr Abbott, that being the case, it sounds like not only will there be a party position but

you'll look pretty sternly on anyone that chooses to cross the floor because you're

saying it's such an article of faith of what the Liberal Party took to the last election.

Presumably if individual Liberal MPs cross the floor on this issue then they are breaking

with that article of faith that you've just talked about.

Tony Abbott:

We have always in our party, we have always respected the rights of Members of

Parliament to take a conscientious position but again, Peter, I just remind you that

every single Member of our Coalition went to the election with a particular position and

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it wasn't a personal position, it was a party position. All of us, I did, my front bench did,

my back bench did, we all went to the election with that position, and as I said, sure,

you can always - you can always say "Well, the times they are a-changing", but if you

are going to keep faith with the electorate you seek a new mandate. You don't just

say: "Oh I'm sorry, I've changed my mind".

Peter van Onselen:

Let's call a spade a spade here. What you're basically doing is you're making it clear to

your MPs that whilst the Liberal Party normally has a tradition of crossing the floor as

being an open option, on this issue you would consider that, that individual MPs would

be breaking faith with what the Liberal Party promised at the last election.

Tony Abbott:

We've all got to make difficult choices in this life, Peter, and sometimes we are torn.

We might want to do something and yet we have a commitment that takes us in

another direction, and the point I'm making is that a very, very important consideration

here, I would suggest a decisive consideration here, is the fact that every single one of

us went to the last election saying that it is the policy of the Coalition that marriage is

between a man and a woman. Now, you can argue the history, you can say "Well

maybe in 2004 we could have done things differently, maybe if we'd thought about this

we might have said differently" but that is the commitment that we made. And I think

that has got to be an extremely powerful factor with every single member of my


Peter van Onselen:

What about going into the next election? Is it the same commitment for the Coalition

which basically would then rule it out over the following three years?

Tony Abbott:

Australian Agenda15 December 2011 Tony Abbott, Opposition LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition  LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition LeaderTony Abbott, Opposition Leader 

Again look, you know, we are a Liberal Party, sure, but we are also the custodian of the

conservative political tradition in this country as well. John Howard famously observed

that there is a dual tradition in our party. It's Liberal but it's conservative as well. The

vast majority of my party room in my judgment strongly holds to the traditional

position that marriage is between a man and a woman. Now, because we are a Liberal

Party, we're not Stalinists, we are open to consider these things but my instinct is that

we are going to remain of a view that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's

interesting, the Prime Minister asserts this but she never defends it. She never explains

it. Now, I think there is a good case for saying that marriage is not just between the

two individuals who make a commitment to each other. It also involves children. We

have the institution of marriage not just for the fulfilment of the partners but for the

protection of the family. Now, we all know that in the modern world families come in all

sorts of shapes and sizes and I would be the last person to make qualitative judgments

about individual families. Still, for good reason our society from time immemorial has

respected this concept that marriage is between a man and a woman, not just because

men and women want to be fulfilled and happy in their personal lives, but because we

have obligations to the children that come with families.

Paul Kelly:

Julia Gillard is about to have a reshuffle. Would you do the same? Do you think it's

appropriate to reshuffle and reassess your own front bench?

Tony Abbott:

Paul, I think the Government has a policy problem. They don't just have a personnel

problem. She can change the faces but unless she changes the policy this is going to

be a very bad Government. In the end it's the policy betrayals, the policy failures that

are causing this Government its political problems.

Paul Kelly:

But I'm asking about the Liberal Party, not the Government.

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Tony Abbott:

Okay, I don't believe we have a policy problem and...

Paul Kelly:

You're in good shape.

Tony Abbott:

I don't think we have a personnel problem. The other point I make is that unless she

addresses the Kevin Rudd poison at the heart of her Government it will continue to be

dysfunctional. Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd cannot be in the same cabinet for cabinet

government direction.

Peter van Onselen:

But on your side no Coalition reshuffle even if there's one on the Labor side?

Tony Abbott:

Look, I have no plans for a reshuffle. Now I don't know, there might be some

retirements, who knows, but I'm very happy with my existing team. I think the senior

members of my team are performing extremely well. I think that that's the team I'm

going to take to the election.

Paul Kelly:

We've just seen...

Tony Abbott:

The other point I should make, Paul, on the reshuffle, the Government's reshuffle, is if

Shorten and Combet end up in more senior positions, rest assured it's the faceless men

who remain in charge.

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Paul Kelly:

We've just seen a major European summit, with the British Prime Minister David

Cameron indicating that he won't agree to the terms and Britain's staying out. Do you

think Cameron's done the right thing?

Tony Abbott:

Well, I think that the Eurozone crisis does have lessons for the wider world and the

fundamental lesson is that countries which keep spending and borrowing and taxing

eventually get themselves into diabolical trouble. Now, I think there are enormous

questions over Europe's economic prospects. As an observer from afar, I see

fundamental difficulties with the euro. I know that this is not an easy issue to resolve. I

think that in the short term at least, regardless of what happens in Europe, Europe's

economic prospects are pretty dire but I think it's very important that you don't make a

bad situation worse by continuing the policies that got you into trouble in the first

place. So I think Cameron's done the right thing, not the wrong thing.

Paul Kelly:

Do you think that countries will have to leave the Eurozone to solve the problem, to

regain their own competitiveness?

Tony Abbott:

Well Paul, again, I don't really feel comfortable as a commentator on Europe, but I am

very pleased...

Paul Kelly:

I'm not asking you as a commentator.

Tony Abbott:

I'm very pleased that Australia is master of its own destiny in a way that the European

countries by and large are not.

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Paul Kelly:

To what extent do you think we're likely to see huge pressures on the Australian

economy next year as a result of a slowdown in growth in the rich world, both Europe

and to a lesser extent the United States, and what will be the consequences of this for


Tony Abbott:

I think, Paul, that the international economic situation is very difficult. I am basically

confident about America because I think America is such a dynamic society, but I think

the Obama Government is having enormous trouble getting its fiscal house in order. I

think that the problems in Europe are fundamental and I don't see them being resolved

any time soon. So if you've got a likely serious recession in Europe, likely continued

very slow growth at best in the United States, I think that does have big risks for

Australia. Now, we would like to think that the Chinese locomotive and the Indian

locomotive will continue to drag us forward, but you know, it would be very unusual to

find a country continuing to grow uninterruptedly at the rate China has forever. All

booms eventually come to an end and that's why I think it's very important that we get

our house in order as quickly as possible.

Paul Kelly:

But don't you think there's a risk in your policy? You keep on talking about getting the

house in order, getting back to surplus, having a bigger surplus than the Labor

Government. Don't you think there's a risk here that if you impose these sort of

government restraints on the economy that you'll undermine growth and activity?

Tony Abbott:

It's never a good thing to waste money and my problem, Paul, with Labor's spending

programs is that so many of them have been wasteful. Now we can go through the

litany of the pink batts and the overpriced school halls and so on, but the big daddy of

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them all is the National Broadband Network and that is continuing. That is continuing.

That is a $50 billion plus white elephant, it is wasteful, it is unnecessary.

Paul Kelly:

It's still a plus for the Government. The Government talks about it and the polls show

that the NBN is still a plus for the Labor Party.

Tony Abbott:

And every day your distinguished newspaper, Paul, has a story under the headline

"How your billions are being spent".

Peter van Onselen:

So is 'The Australian' newspaper doing a better job of dissembling the NBN than

Malcolm Turnbull, the Shadow Minister?

Tony Abbott:

Well, the fact that 'The Australian' has stories to publish every other day on the NBN I

think is a function of the good work that Malcolm is doing.

Paul Kelly:

Are you satisfied with the performance of Malcolm Turnbull as Communications


Tony Abbott:

Absolutely. The fact that the NBN is now, with respect Paul, a negative for the

Government is due to Malcolm's excellent work in this area.

Peter van Onselen:

Can I ask you in relation to economics which you were talking about before, there was

the report the other week about the organisation, the accountancy firm that did the

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Coalition's costings at the last election has been fined by its peak industry body for that

actual piece of work not being up to their standards, if you like. That's embarrassing for

the Coalition, you'd have to agree.

Tony Abbott:

Well, I'm not embarrassed Peter because I'm very confident that...

Peter van Onselen:

You're not embarrassed that the peak body of accountancy for that particular firm for

that particular costings that they did for you has been fined for not being up to


Tony Abbott:

Well, the firm has been fined. The Coalition hasn't. Now, if the firm...

Peter van Onselen:

Because you can't be fined by the peak body but the peak body can fine the people

that were responsible for giving the tick, which was - a lot of emphasis was placed on it

by Joe Hockey and yourself at the last election and now that peak industry body is

saying that that piece of work was worthy of being fined, ie, not up to scratch.

Tony Abbott:

Well look, we can argue the toss about this one Peter. I am very happy with our

costings and while we're on the subject of costings, I mean you know, this is a

Government which three times got its mining tax costings wrong. This is a Government

which every few months has to revise upwards the deficit for this year from 12 billion

to 23 billion to $37 billion. I mean really, let's not be too precious about this.

Peter van Onselen:

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But I've been very critical about them about that. I've written about it repeatedly

including yesterday. But nonetheless will you be using the same firm for your costings

at the next election?

Tony Abbott:

What Joe has said is that once the budget office is up and running we will use the

budget office for costings until the election and then we will find a different way of

validating our costings.

Paul Kelly:

The Government has abandoned the tender process for the Australian television

network. Instead, it will be now part of the ABC forever. What's your response to that

and if you become Prime Minister will you look at that decision to see if it can be

unwound and a new tender process established down the track?

Tony Abbott:

Paul, this whole decision has been a shambles and it's typical of the fact that it's not

just the policy outcomes but it's the policy process which is deficient in this

Government. I mean, this is a Government which is rotten to its core and that process

illustrates that rottenness. I think that, you know, there is an argument for saying that

the national broadcaster ought to handle our soft power projection. For much of the

life of the Howard Government that was the position that we took. I don't want to

make policy on the run though Paul. At the moment we've got a shoddy, shoddy

process from a Government which thought that we needed a tender and then scrapped


Peter van Onselen:

But it can't be policy on the run. You must have thought about this since they did scrap

the tender. If you came back into power are you inclined to open it back up?

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Tony Abbott:

I'd like to take advice on this and in good time before the next election we'll tell you

what our position is. But at the moment you've got yet another example of a

Government which is utterly incompetent and untrustworthy and again, typically, it was

the Rudd/Gillard poison that was at the heart of this decision.

Paul Kelly:

When the President of the United States was here you did have a brief meeting with

President Obama. How did that meeting go and what was your impression of the


Tony Abbott:

Paul, one of the privileges of being a major party leader is that you do get this kind of

opportunity. President Obama, as you'd expect of a US President, is a man of

extraordinary capability and really a very, very impressive individual. I don't know

whether he's been the world's greatest President but he's certainly a very impressive

person of great capacity. The interesting thing about the discussions that we had with

President Obama is that when it comes to climate change, in practice the American

Government's policy is the same as that proposed by the Opposition.

Paul Kelly:

Is that what he said to you?

Tony Abbott:

Well, he's - he is conscious of not wanting to get too deeply involved in partisan issues

here in Australia.

Peter van Onselen:

Sounds like privately though he may have mentioned that to you.

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Tony Abbott:

I'm not going to go into the who-said-what-to-whom business, but it's obvious that the

American Government has no intention of moving into cap and trade or an emissions

trading scheme any time soon. It's less likely now than it's ever been that they will go

down this path as a means...

Paul Kelly:

So America is on your side on climate change, you think.

Tony Abbott:

Well, look at the policy. I mean, judge them by their practice and their practice is what

I think should be our practice.

Peter van Onselen:

So you're not expecting much out of Durban I guess as a final question.

Tony Abbott:

Well again, the reports coming out of Durban are that it is highly unlikely to come up

with a new binding agreement. I think that the longer this issue is before us the more

obvious it is that carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes are not going to be

embraced. That's why we should take sensible constructive measures on a

country-by-country basis along the lines of our direct action policy.

Peter van Onselen:

All right Tony Abbott we'll let you go. We appreciate you joining us on Australian

Agenda. Have a good summer break if you get one.

Tony Abbott:

Thanks so much.