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Grattan on Friday: In Conversation with Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott has had a tumultuous first few months as prime minister. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott has been in office six months, and this week marks 20 years since he was elected to parliament. On Thursday he sat down with The Conversation in his Parliament House office to talk about settling in to the most demanding job in the nation’s political life.

Abbott admits being prime minister is fatiguing but with six hours sleep a night “I can survive indefinitely”. It’s a “very collegial” and “like-minded” government, despite some senior members being in a “slightly different philosophical space to mine”. “The outliers are not very far away from the mainstream,” he adds. His cabinet often makes changes to items coming to it – “that’s what cabinet government is all about”.

He expresses confidence that his one ministerial casualty, Arthur Sinodinos, who has stood aside because he’s before ICAC, will come through – “I will be amazed if any significant adverse finding is made against him”.

He canvasses his formal and informal advice networks, and mounts a spirited defence of his controversial chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Discussing the accelerated political process, he says anonymous social media can be much more vitriolic and extreme than “normal media”, likening it to “electronic graffiti”.

Abbott explains his failure to take his surprise “knights and dames” initiative to cabinet and the party room by saying this was a matter between him and the Queen.

On proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, he says the government is not “impervious to a further argument”.

Looking to the new post-July 1 Senate, he promises the government will keep the crossbenchers “very much in the loop” as it tries to get its bills through.

And what has he really, really enjoyed in the job? “The contact with the military at every level.”

The interview started on the subject of whether a PM can have a life apart from the job.

Michelle Grattan: How are you managing the work-life balance?

Tony Abbott: No senior politician can expect to have work-life balance. I’m afraid there are some jobs for which work-life balance inevitably goes out the window. If you want work-life balance you just have to accept that you can’t be a senior member of a government, or for that matter a senior member of an opposition.

So I’m not really managing the work-life balance, I’m just accepting that the work increases and the ordinary life has to decrease when you’re the prime minister.

Tony Abbott with his wife and daughters on election night 2013. AAP/Dean Lewins

Michelle Grattan: You did try to hang on to a few things. Have you given that up?

Tony Abbott: I haven’t, but inevitably the space for “self time” decreases even further when you become PM and that’s just the way it is. I’m not complaining, it’s just a fact of life.

Michelle Grattan: Have you hung on to anything?

Tony Abbott: I’m still getting my exercise at five o'clock in the morning, that’s good. So far I’ve managed to hold on to a bike ride on Saturday or Sunday morning, probably at least two weekends out of three. But there has been bugger-all surfing since the election. For the first half of January I got a surf in most days, but that’s really the only surfing there’s been since the election.

Michelle Grattan: And the fire brigade?

Tony Abbott: I got one night and one day with the brigade up in those Blue Mountain fires in October and I think I’ve done two duty days since then. So just enough to stay an efficient firefighter and I’ll try to get another Sunday in some time between now and the budget.

Michelle Grattan: Are you still in your Sydney house?

Tony Abbott: Yes.

Michelle Grattan: Are you going to stay there?

Tony Abbott: Look, the security people are anxious, but there has been no definitive decision made. That one’s still being weighed.

Michelle Grattan: How different is the prime minister’s job from what you expected?

Tony Abbott: Again, Michelle, I should stress that this isn’t all about me. This isn’t about me and my experience, it’s about the people and their experience of the new government. Hopefully the people’s experience of the new government will be that it’s competent and considered, trustworthy and candid, in a way that the former government wasn’t.

There’s a sense in which lots of things help prepare you for this job, but nothing can completely prepare you for the job. I was a very senior minister in the Howard government and I sat around this particular table [in the prime ministerial office] in many discussions. The difference between being a senior minister and the prime minister is that ultimately the buck does stop with the prime minister and in the end the prime minister has to make those critical judgement calls and that’s the big difference.

It is a very heavy responsibility to make, but someone has to make it for our country and I am thrilled and honoured to have that opportunity and that responsibility.

Michelle Grattan: I’ve heard it said that you believe the political process has speeded up considerably since the Howard days. Do you think the PM’s job has changed since those days?

John Howard has been a mentor for Tony Abbott in many ways. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott: I think there is no doubt that the advent of 24/7 news channels, which are voracious in their demand for constant new content, has accelerated the political process. The rise of social media, in addition to talkback, I think has intensified the political process.

The thing about social media is that it is anonymous, so it can be much more vitriolic and extreme than normal media and yet it is there for everyone to see. It is kind of like electronic graffiti. The political process is accelerated and intense in a way that I don’t believe it ever really has been before.

Michelle Grattan: And that’s changed the prime minister’s job?

Tony Abbott: It is just an added element of pressure, that’s all.

Michelle Grattan: Is the job very fatiguing?

Tony Abbott: Yes, but I’m lucky in that I’ve got quite a bit of stamina, Michelle. I don’t need more than six hours sleep a night – if I get six hours sleep a night I can survive indefinitely. I can bound out of bed at five o'clock in the morning, get my hour of exercise and feel very refreshed for the day.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t periods during the day when you don’t start to feel like the odd yawn, but nevertheless I find I can go through the day till about ten o'clock pretty comfortably.

Michelle Grattan: How would you rate your start in the job?

Tony Abbott: Well, Michelle, I’ve always avoided those sorts of self-assessments because if you give yourself a 10 out of 10 people think you’re a big head, if you give yourself a 6 out of 10 they think you’re plagued with self-doubt, so I’m just not going to rate myself.

Michelle Grattan: When we spoke before the election, you said the prime minister should be somewhat more than first among equals, but leave a lot to his ministers. Now you’re in the position do you still think this is the appropriate formula?

Tony Abbott: I do. There are some issues where ministers should come and talk to the prime minister, if the prime minister hasn’t already talked to them. Any issue which a minister thinks is going to be profoundly controversial, where we do not have a clear existing position, it is important that there be a conversation between the minister and the prime minister. I think they all understand that and I think it is working very well.

Michelle Grattan: Have you had to intervene with ministers more than you expected?

Tony Abbott: No. It’s a very collegial government. The media – and I’m not blaming them – obviously like to seize on the differences between people and, sure, there are some senior members of the government who are in a slightly different philosophical space to mine. But do not underestimate the substantial single-mindedness of this government.

We are a very like-minded group, the senior members of this government. The outliers are not very far away from the mainstream.

Michelle Grattan: How difficult for you personally was the Sinodinos affair?

Tony Abbott: I have a lot of respect for Arthur. I’ve known Arthur for a very long time. I’ve worked closely with him over a very long period of time. Arthur is a fundamentally decent man and I will be amazed if any significant adverse finding is made against him.

Arthur is also a tough political professional and he realised that it was going to be difficult for the government if he simply toughed it out and that’s why he came to tell me what he told me.

Michelle Grattan: What are your various sources of advice; do you maintain an informal network as a sounding board?

Tony Abbott: Every prime minister has a whole series of networks, and there are official formal networks and there are unofficial informal networks. I’m lucky in that I have good official formal networks, starting with my own office, the leadership group, the cabinet and the party room.

But I’ve also got some informal networks. I guess the people I cycle with are inevitably a bit of an informal network. The people up at the fire brigade are inevitably a bit of an informal network. My wife and daughters are inevitably a bit of an informal network.

I’m confident that there are plenty of people who have the strength of character and the presence of mind to warn me of difficulties and alert me to opportunities.

Michelle Grattan: You didn’t mention the public service in that list.

Tony Abbott: Of course I should have, but in the end the public service is there to implement the policies of the government as well as to offer frank and fearless advice.

Peta Credlin has come under fire in the early days of the government. AAP/Lukas Coch

Michelle Grattan: Your office has got a good deal of flak, particularly your chief of staff [Peta Credlin], for being too controlling. Does this concern you at all?

Tony Abbott: I think it is curious, Michelle, that when a female chief of staff is strong the term “controlling” is used, whereas when a male chief of staff is strong “decisive” is the term used. I think she is doing a terrific job and I’m very proud of my office.

Michelle Grattan: What have you found the most rewarding areas of the job and what have been the most difficult?

Tony Abbott: It is such an honour and a privilege, and most of the time such an exhilarating honour and privilege, that I’m reluctant to single out any particular aspect. Like the Governor-General, when asked what you enjoy most about the job my tendency is to say “today”, because of the insights you get into our nation and because of the privileged contact you have with so many people.

Tony Abbott has enjoyed having the opportunity to get to meet the military. AAP/Mike Bowers

It’s nearly all been good. I suppose, being a fairly traditional person, the contact with the military at every level, from the service chiefs to the squadies that I’ve been lucky enough to do PT with, has been a special highlight.

Michelle Grattan: And the downsides?

Tony Abbott: It just goes with the territory, but no one likes criticism which they think is completely unjustified. Although as a mate of mine said to me once, unfair criticism is a compliment in disguise.

Michelle Grattan: Is there a particularly egregious example of this you can give?

Tony Abbott: No, if I start going into details I will be thought to be whinging and I don’t want to be thought to be whinging because as I said it goes with the territory.

Michelle Grattan: You were hit in the early days by some really tough and unexpected issues, notably the revelations about spying in Indonesia and the announced closure of the Australian operations of two car manufacturers. How tough were they to deal with and did you feel prepared to deal with them?

Tony Abbott: They were both tough issues and I think the government has handled them both, in the end, as well as they could have been handled. Whenever you’re in a very difficult position it is important to have principles and values to fall back on.

In respect of Indonesia, I am determined to be the best possible friend of Indonesia that I can be, consistent with my overriding duty to protect our country. We would never do anything that was damaging to Indonesia, because we want Indonesia to flourish. We want Indonesia to take its rightful place as one of the really important countries of the world, as it will, sooner or later.

So I’m never going to do anything that’s damaging to Indonesia. I want to be a very good friend to Indonesia, but there are some things which are non-negotiable. Border protection is just non-negotiable. Maintaining a strong security network is just non-negotiable. I think the Indonesians understand that. I just think it is a pity that the inevitable domestic politics of Indonesia, the inevitable sensation-seeking of the media here and there, turned what was always going to go the way it went into some kind of a big storm.

Michelle Grattan: You blindsided your colleagues this week with your plan to bring back knights and dames. Why didn’t you take that to cabinet and the party room, especially after the criticism when you bypassed the party room in opposition on paid parental leave?

Tony Abbott had the opportunity to meet the Queen, while in opposition. AAP/Lyndon Mechielsen

Tony Abbott: In the end the relationship between the prime minister and the monarch is very much a personal one and when it comes to the constitution of the Order of Australia, which is headed by the monarch, this is governed by letters patent, which are a matter between the prime minister and the monarch.

I think the prime minister is entitled to make these sorts of decisions with the monarch. I took a few soundings. In fact I took some quite widespread soundings on this and, as you’d expect, some people were more in favour than others. The soundings that I took obviously didn’t deter me from a particular course of action.

Obviously I know there has been a predictable reaction from the usual suspects, but I think it will quickly settle down. Under the new arrangements we’re not going to have a flood of new knights and dames; there will be four a year and I think that is appropriate given the very single honour that a knighthood or a damehood is.

Michelle Grattan: Do you care that a lot of fun is being made of the initiative at your expense?

Tony Abbott: I’ve seen some amusing cartoons and I’ve had a bit of a chuckle about it. So be it.

Michelle Grattan: Is this a return to traditional Tony – was it a case of letting your instincts off the leash?

Tony Abbott: I want to stress that in the same week that this announcement has been made, I gave quite a significant foreign policy speech, we had red tape repeal day in the parliament as part of our deregulatory agenda, we announced the sale of Medibank Private, we had important legislation such as the mining tax repeal bill dealt with in the Senate.

So the idea that I’ve spent most of the last week thinking about this is simply wrong. But nevertheless, as I said the other day, I think that this will be a grace note in our society and I’m pleased that it has happened.

Michelle Grattan: You are losing a lot of skin over your planned changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. You feel strongly that a legal injustice was done to columnist Andrew Bolt, but is the course you are taking worth the flak? Do you understand the fears of ethnic communities and the Jewish community [about the proposed changes]?

Columnist Andrew Bolt has been central to the debate about the racial discrimination act. AAP/Julian Smith

Tony Abbott: This was an election commitment. In the aftermath of the Bolt case there was quite a fierce debate and we said any number of times, orally and in print, that we were going to repeal section 18C in its current form. What we’ve done is entirely consistent with that commitment.

We’ve removed “insult”, “offend” and “humiliate”, we’ve kept “intimidate” and we’ve added “vilify”. I think we’ve produced a stronger prohibition on real racism, while maintaining freedom of speech in ordinary public discussion. So I’m very comfortable with where we’re at. We’re not dogmatic or impervious to a further argument, that’s why we released it as an exposure draft rather than simply releasing it straight into the parliament.

Michelle Grattan: Is the Fairfax story today about George Brandis being done over in cabinet essentially correct? [The report said cabinet this week forced Brandis to water down his original proposals for changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.]

Tony Abbott: Without commenting on that story, what’s the point of having a cabinet if from time to time proposals that are taken to the cabinet aren’t modified and improved? That’s the whole point of having a cabinet surely, so that a minister can bring a proposal forward, the cabinet discussion can ensue and the proposal might be amended because of that discussion.

There are very few things that come to cabinet that aren’t changed in some way and there is nothing wrong with that. That’s what cabinet government is all about.

Michelle Grattan: On economic matters – in your tough line on SPC Ardmona and the car industry, we’ve seen a very “dry” line from you. Some of your colleagues are surprised. Do you feel your thinking on economics has shifted? When did you “dry out”?

Tony Abbott: This is where putting labels on people is so counter-productive. Most of us on some issues could be considered conservative, on other issues could be considered progressive, on other issues might be thought of as being moderate, on other issues might be thought of as being rather forthright.

I think all senior politicians tend to be rather more subtle then the commentators would have it. It is a natural tendency for human beings to try to classify. We all have this classification urge – so and so is such and such, that person is in that camp – but look, most sophisticated people defy stereotype.

Michelle Grattan: One of the government’s major tasks will be dealing with the new Senate after July 1 in which Clive Palmer’s party will be very important. You two have had your moments in the past. Will you be meeting regularly with him, or leaving the negotiations mainly to others?

Tony Abbott: This is something that will evolve. What will most certainly happen is that there will be very clear and full communication between the government and independents and minor parties. The precise mechanisms will evolve over time, but we certainly intend to keep the minor parties and the independents very much in the loop. We have to if we want our legislative agenda to have a reasonable chance of success and that’s what we intend to do.

Tony Abbott has already spent a lot of time travelling during his prime ministership. AAP/Made Nagi

Michelle Grattan: You’ve already done quite a bit of travel and you have a substantial trip coming up in April to China, Korea and Japan. Then you will be off to the United States. How hard is it to juggle the overseas travel with keeping a grip on domestic priorities in these early days? For example you will be out of the budget process for a week or so when you go to China and the other countries.

Tony Abbott: I don’t think anyone should overestimate how out of the loop people are these days. In the era of mobile phones and emails, you’re no more out of the loop in China than you are in Sydney. There’s not even much of a time change. In terms of the time change, the time change is no different to Perth. So I’ll be staying in close touch.

Michelle Grattan: Nevertheless, your mind has to be on what you’re doing there and it is a bit different when Joe Hockey can just pop into this office and say “look I want to talk about this for five minutes”.

Tony Abbott: If we were in the pre-budget month and I was in Western Australia for a week, for instance, I’d be just as much out of the loop there as I would be in China. It is very important for our long-term economic future that the relationship with Japan, Korea and China, who are our three biggest trading partners, be ever stronger. That’s why I’m making this trip.

I think the fact that I am making this trip quite early on in the life of the new government is a sign that we understand the importance of these relationships to our long-term economic security.

Michelle Grattan: Just speaking of Western Australia, you’ll be there next week, which is the last week before the Senate election. Do you think you’ll hold your three senators?

Tony Abbott: I think we can and should, but I don’t presume to prejudge what the electors will do.

Michelle Grattan: Just finally, if you were to fast forward a year, what are the three things you would most like to have achieved by this time 12 months on?

Tony Abbott: We’ve got to stop the boats, get the budget under control and repeal the carbon tax and the mining tax. They’re the things that we have to get done in these first 12 months.

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