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Grattan on Friday: In Conversation with Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott has so far been the low-key team player in the 2016 election campaign. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Just as there is a “good Malcolm” and a “bad Malcolm” so there is a “good Tony” and a “bad Tony”. As the Liberals went into this election, there was some nervousness about which Tony Abbott would be on show during the campaign.

No wonder really. Everyone remembers the 2010 campaign: former prime minister Kevin Rudd, the leaks, the awkward joint appearance with Julia Gillard to try to display a unity that wasn’t there. Equally, everyone also knows Abbott remains unforgiving about what happened to him last September. So the potential for trouble was always there.

To the relief of the government in what has been a tough first half of the campaign, Abbott has so far been the low-key team player.

The cynical point out that Abbott can be the good guy while his former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, a commentator on Sky and in News Corp tabloids, says some of the more critical things he might think. Possibly, but the fact remains that Abbott is being very restrained and very careful, given his continued strong feelings.

It’s in his interests to be so. If Malcolm Turnbull wins well, Abbott’s legacy fares better if he has behaved. He can argue that, whatever Turnbull might say, a lot of the election policy was a carry-on from his, Abbott’s, time.

If Turnbull holds power only narrowly, nobody will be able to blame Abbott for the poor result if he has been supportive. And his case for a frontbench role would be stronger – though it is unlikely that even a weakened Turnbull would grant him that.

In the wide-ranging interview with The Conversation on Thursday, Abbott:

  • staunchly defended the government’s superannuation policy, which is under fire from some in the party’s base, including donors;

  • opposed the Liberals preferencing the Greens in any seats;

  • made it clear he’d put his opposition to same-sex marriage in the proposed plebiscite but would vote for the enabling legislation if the yes side won;

  • said, when asked about the performance of Bill Shorten as opposition leader, that while Shorten had very bad policy “at least he’s had the guts to come up with a plan”. In contrast Turnbull said in Sunday’s debate: “they have no plan for economic growth and no plan for jobs”.

  • hinted the party would constrain how far a re-elected Turnbull could follow his own path; and

  • hoped that despite their recent bitter rift he and Bronwyn Bishop could one day be friends again.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview, done in Abbott’s Parliament House office.

Michelle Grattan: Tony Abbott, where have you been campaigning and how have you found the mood of the electorate?

Tony Abbott: Mostly in Warringah, Michelle, because I’m running to be the member for Warringah at this election. Most weeks, though, since the campaign has begun, I’ve been out of the electorate for a day or two. This week, for instance, I helped in Deakin where Michael Sukkar is a very strong local member and I also went up to Wide Bay where, as you know, former deputy prime minister Warren Truss is retiring and Llew O'Brien, a terrific country policeman, is the new National Party candidate up there.

So my objective in this campaign is to be a strong candidate for my own seat and to be as helpful as I can in a low-key way around the country.

MG: So are you going where people invite you? Or do you volunteer yourself?

TA: Well essentially where I’m invited. Obviously, there are some people who are keener than others to have me. But I’m available within reason to be as helpful as I can to people who think that I can be an asset to their campaign.

MG: Has HQ asked you to do anything?

TA: Yes they have. I’ve gone to a couple of fundraisers at HQ’s request. I’ve made a couple of little announcements yesterday on the Sunshine Coast at headquarters’ request and, again, without expecting to be front and centre of this campaign, I want to be as helpful as I can be because it is absolutely essential for our country’s future that the Turnbull government be returned.

MG: So how have you found the mood of the electorate?

TA: I think the electorate has been pretty disengaged up until now …

MG: We’re talking generally of course …

TA: Just generally. Yeah, I mean, there are always groups that are passionate about politics. The Green left are passionate about politics and Bill Shorten is more and more pandering to them, particularly with his 50% renewable target and his 45% emissions reduction target by 2030. This 50% renewable target, if the Grattan Institute is to be believed, requires almost a $50 billion over-build of renewable capacity and consumers will have to pay for that.

So, the Green-left activists are being courted by Bill Shorten.

Obviously there are some issues with the superannuation among staunch Liberals, and the point I keep making to them is that we cannot avoid tough decisions. We cannot avoid doing some things that will upset people if we are to boost the economy and at the same time get the budget under control.

So, there’s engagement by some groups but my sense is that the community at large is yet to be passionately engaged in this campaign and I guess that’s got to be good for the incumbent government.

MG: Just before we leave your campaigning – are you going to go to Lindsay and are you going to go to Indi?

TA: I certainly have been talking to Sophie Mirabella about how I can help her because, as you know, Sophie’s a friend of mine. We’ve been mates for 20-odd years. And I was very, very disappointed that Sophie didn’t win Indi in 2013 because I expected her to be a strong member of the Abbott cabinet.

As for Lindsay, look I’ve certainly done a lot of campaigning in Lindsay over the years but Lindsay was the designated donee conference for my [electorate] conference. This time the designation donee conference is Dobell on the Central Coast. So I think you’re much more likely to find me in Dobell than in Lindsay.

MG: And on Indi, you might go there?

TA: Well, it’s really up to the campaign team in Indi but certainly I have a lot of time for Sophie Mirabella. I think it’s very much in the interests of the people of Indi that they have as their local member someone who can be a strong part of a government, rather than an independent who inevitably is going to be a voice in the wilderness.

MG: Barnaby Joyce has said the government will take a haircut – the question is how much. What’s your assessment?

TA: We had a very, very strong result in 2013 and it was always going to be hard to hold onto all of those seats. Nevertheless I have the impression that all of our marginal seat members are working hard.

There’s no doubt that Michael Sukkar in Deakin, for instance, is working incredibly hard. I know people like Andrew Nikolic and the others of the musketeers, the three musketeers in Tasmania, are working incredibly hard. Karen McNamara in Dobell is working very hard. I was with George Christensen up in central Queensland a week or so ago back. He’s working very hard, so look I don’t think there’s anyone who’s not working hard …

MG: But hard work doesn’t always do it …

TA: It doesn’t always do it but nevertheless it means a very great deal. It’s interesting, if you go back to 1998, the marginal seat members who relied on the national campaign to get them over the line tended to lose.

The marginal seat members who had done an enormous amount of grassroots work in their electorates, who’d actually done the hard yards door knocking, phone canvassing, attending to the needs of people who walked in the door of their offices, they were the ones who survived and became in many cases great stalwarts of the Howard government.

MG: Your performance as opposition leader was generally recognised, I think by both sides of politics, as highly effective for its purpose. I wonder how you rate Bill Shorten’s performance, leaving aside the content of what he’s selling, but as an opposition leader.

TA: Well, you should never underestimate Labor. That’s the first point to make. Labor have enormous campaigning skills. Let’s face it, Labor has this permanent campaigning arm – the union movement – which has thousands of organisers on the payroll. It has about a billion dollars a year at its disposal from membership fees and these days the union apparatus is more and more interested in campaigning and less and less focused on the actual workplace. So, we should never underestimate Labor.

As for Bill Shorten, look, he seemed to lose his mojo a bit in the latter part of last year but he’s obviously lifted himself this year. And whether you agree with the policy or not, and obviously I think it’s terrible policy to hit our people with $100 billion worth of new taxes over the next decade given that we’re already over-taxed, I think it’s very bad policy but at least he’s had the guts to come up with a plan.

It’s a thoroughly bad plan but it is at least a plan. It’s a tax-and-spend-and-borrow plan. It’s the most left-wing program that Labor has had probably since Doc Evatt but, nevertheless, it is a plan.

MG: How well does the government need to win for Malcolm Turnbull to have a strong mandate?

TA: Well, a mandate depends not just on the size of the majority, it also depends on the policy platform that you take to the people. I think that our policy platform is a strong one. There’s a company tax cut to boost investment jobs and prosperity. There’s a middle-income tax cut because they’re the people having a go, there’s an absolute determination to throw the book at dodgy union officials and corrupt union governance, which has done so much damage to our country over decades.

And, of course, we are the only people you can trust to keep our borders secure and our country safe. So, I think that if the government is returned we’ll have a strong mandate for all of those policies.

MG: You said previously that Malcolm Turnbull at this election would be campaigning on the Abbott government’s record. Is this turning out to be the case?

TA: Well, there’s no doubt that we can go to the people at this election with a very strong record of achievement …

MG: The Abbott government record?

TA: Well, don’t forget Malcolm Turnbull was a senior member of the Abbott government. He was a member of the cabinet that made all these decisions and effected all these changes for the better.

The boats are stopped. No-one thought we could do that. The carbon tax and the mining tax are gone and everyone thought those taxes were forever. The three free trade agreements that had defied previous governments for a decade are well and truly in place and they’ll set us up for decades to come. We’ve made a very strong start to budget repair, although there’s obviously a lot more work to be done there.

Infrastructure is going ahead massively right around the country except in Victoria and that’s the Victorian government’s fault. And we’ve kept our country safe in the face of unprecedented national security challenges.

So, it’s a very strong record and it’s a great record for the prime minister to build on.

MG: If Malcolm Turnbull got a big majority, do you think or fear he might take the party in a very different direction to the one he inherited from you?

TA: Well, the interesting thing is that as party leader you are very much a product of the party in a way that you aren’t quite when you are simply a senior frontbencher.

As you might remember from my own past, Michelle, at times as a frontbencher, even in government I would strike out on my own a little, sometimes with the tacit encouragement of the prime minister, sometimes without any encouragement.

You become party leader and you don’t have the luxury of a private view anymore. You are there to represent the team to discern what is best for the team, to discern what is going to keep the team together, if you’re prime minister what’s going to be best for the country and what’s going to keep the country united and cohesive, and you’ve got to go with that.

MG: So what do you think will be the nature of the post-election parliamentary Liberal Party? Will it be more conservative or more moderate than we see at the moment?

TA: I think it will continue to have strong voices who are on the more liberal side and strong voices who are on the more conservative side.

MG: So it won’t change much from now?

TA: Not much. I mean, if you look at the people who we’ve preselected for seats that we would expect to hold, we’ve got someone like Tim Wilson in Goldstein, you’ve got someone like Julian Leeser in Berowra. I think it would be fair to say that Tim is probably more on the liberal side. Julian Leeser is probably more on the conservative side.

Someone like [candidate for Tangney, WA] Ben Morton – very smart person – I think a sensible pragmatic conservative. I think we’ve got good new members coming into the parliament or likely to come into the parliament this time and I think one way or another they will all be within the Liberal mainstream.

MG: Will you seek to be an active leader of the conservatives post-election, the conservative group in the party?

TA: Well, my plan is to be as useful as I can be in the next parliament. Now, obviously first and foremost, I’m going to be a strong local member and there are a lot of things that need to be done in my seat.

Obviously there’s the standard representational work that every member does but it’s vital that having worked with the state government to get a new hospital for the northern beaches that I work with the state government to ensure that we finally get the new transport infrastructure that is long overdue for our part of Sydney.

We desperately need a road tunnel under Mosman. The Baird government has it on its medium-term planning list once WestConnex and NorthConnex are truly underway and it will help our area to get that if the local member is someone of national standing.

MG: But nationally, would you seek to be a leader of the conservatives?

TA: Well, look, I want to be as useful as I can be and that will mean standing up for what I think are good Liberal, conservative positions. Those are the positions of our party. Let’s never forget, Michelle, whether we use the broad church terminology of John Howard or the big tent terminology of John Brogden, our party is, if you like, a coalition. It’s a formal coalition with the National Party but within that broad coalition there are a range of different voices and that’s healthy. That’s healthy and I’ll certainly be contributing to that after the election.

MG: Now some of these voices are speaking up at the moment on superannuation. How serious is this revolt? You promised not to touch super, do you think your view has been vindicated?

TA: Michelle, there obviously is some disgruntlement among some people who are normally very strong Liberal supporters. But the point I keep making to them is that superannuation is not about building up your wealth, it’s about giving you a reasonable income in retirement. Now over the years some people have seen it as a vehicle for wealth creation.

The government, quite understandably in the circumstances, wants to return superannuation to its original purpose. The Labor Party, likewise, wants to return superannuation to its original purpose, which is why Labor has some rather similar proposals on the table to ours.

The other point I keep making, Michelle, is that sure, superannuation is going to be less tax-advantaged for people with very large superannuation balances, but there is no way of doing the sorts of things we have to do with company tax without finding the revenue from somewhere.

MG: But you would never have taken this decision.

TA: Well, I went to the last election with a position. As you know, the prime ministership changed and the cabinet took a position as part of the budget process. Now I think there are strong arguments for the position that the government has taken and I’m certainly out there prosecuting those arguments.

MG: And have the people who are in the party, the parliamentary party, who are criticising this, have they tried to enlist your support?

TA: Look, the short answer is we are all supporting the government’s position. We accept that superannuation for a small percentage of people is going to be somewhat less tax-advantaged under our proposals than is currently the case. But if you want to deliver a very important company tax cut that over time will add 1% to GDP and massively boost investment, jobs and prosperity, it’s got to be paid for somehow.

Labor thinks money grows on trees. We know that if you are responsibly to provide concessions in one area, you’ve got to address concessions in another area and that’s what we’re doing, we’re acting in a responsible, prudent way.

MG: Could it change after the election or is it set in stone?

TA: I don’t expect it to.

MG: We’ve been in Melbourne this week in Batman and Wills where the Greens at least have a fighting chance in those Labor seats and if they got Liberal preferences, they’d perhaps have quite a good chance. The Liberal Party at the moment is considering that question – whether to give the Greens preferences. Do you think the Greens should be preferenced in those seats in exchange for a deal that would help the Liberals in outer suburban seats?

TA: Well, Michelle, this is a matter for the lay party.

MG: You’ve had strong views in the past.

TA: Yes, yes. And certainly as a general rule I think that more responsible parties should be preferenced ahead of less-responsible parties and for all the Labor Party’s faults it is, in the end, the alternative government and heaven help us if the Greens were ever the alternative government. So, you can probably draw a conclusion from that if you want, Michelle …

MG: I think I can take that as a no but …

TA: But, in the end, this is the matter for the party organisation.

MG: But I can accept that as a no?

TA: It’s a matter for the party organisation.

MG: What would be the danger of preferencing the Greens?

TA: Well, as I said, we are the party of strong economic management. We are the party of national security and the Greens are the opposite …

MG: But you’d wreak havoc in the Labor Party …

TA: They are the absolute opposite and it’s very important that people understand that the Liberal Party is a sensible, principled party; that the Coalition is a sensible, principled coalition; and we don’t play footsie with people who would destroy our economy and damage our national security.

MG: Now I know you’ve said in the past that the Abbott era is over but it’s always hard to believe that a former leader doesn’t still have the baton in there somewhere and anyway isn’t that a decision for the parliamentary party? You’ve always said you’d serve the party.

TA: But as I said and as you reminded me Michelle, the Abbott era is over. It was a very decisive vote in the partyroom back in September of last year and I just can’t imagine that it will be revisited.

MG: After the election, if the opportunity presented itself, would you like to serve on the frontbench?

TA: This is a matter for the prime minister … I’m not asking for advancement. I’m not expecting advancement. I am running to be the member for Warringah. I’m very happy to be the member for Warringah, should I be returned. There are all sorts of things I can do as the member for Warringah which I think will be a useful contribution to the next parliament.

MG: I think we might take that as a yes. You’ve been really, really restrained at this election. How hard has that been?

TA: Well, again, Michelle, I’ve always tried to be a team player. Now, that hasn’t meant that at times in the past I haven’t tried a few initiatives of my own. But always, always with the intention of strengthening the team, of helping the team and I don’t intend to change now.

MG: But you’ve had breakouts even when you were a senior member of the team and yet we’ve seen nearly a month of this campaign and it’s been very much the “good Tony” hasn’t it?

TA: Michelle, look, as I said, I’ve always been a team player. It is imperative that we return the Turnbull government at this election, absolutely essential for Australia that we return the Turnbull government. Bill Shorten is a clever politician but a Shorten government would be worse than Rudd, worse than Gillard. It would be the most left-wing Labor government in our history and that’s the last thing we need.

MG: You spoke about other ways of serving if you’re not on the frontbench. And it has to be said that Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t given any encouragement to the thought that you would be on the frontbench. So what other ways are there of serving as a parliamentarian?

TA: Well, as I said, Michelle, a local member speaks up for his or her electorate, makes a vigorous contribution to the partyroom, and can have a voice in the debates that our nation faces. And, look, on a whole range of subjects I think I’ve got constructive and useful things to say. I made some constructive and useful speeches over the last few months since leaving the prime ministership and that will continue.

MG: Well there are two very big debates that are coming up. One is the Indigenous referendum and the other is the same-sex marriage debate. On the Indigenous referendum issue – how do you think that’s going and would you be really active in that campaign?

TA: I think it’s now being mulled over by people at a grassroots level. There are the community consultations that Bill Shorten and I agreed upon back in July of last year that are now going ahead. There’s an Indigenous stream, there’s a general stream. They’re taking place.

Hopefully, in the next few months, a proposal will crystallise, a proposal which can unite our country rather than divide our country, and provided it is about recognition and it’s not seeking to do a whole lot of other things that might be more properly be the preserve of the parliament, I see no reason why I won’t be there campaigning strongly for it.

MG: And you think it can be carried?

TA: If it’s about recognition and not about a whole lot of other things, yes I do.

MG: And in the same-sex marriage campaign, which looks as though, if the government is returned, will be this year, will you be campaigning for the “no” case?

TA: Well, again, I have a well-known position on this. I’m a traditionalist on this. I accept that good people can disagree on this and I accept that a position which was almost unthinkable a decade ago is now strongly supported by lots of people in our community.

I think of my sister – the arguments I’ve had with her. She was not interested in this five years ago but now she’s passionate about it, as is her right. But I have a position. It’s been a very consistent position and in appropriate ways I’ll be putting it.

MG: So you would expect individual Liberal MPs – backbenchers – to be able to campaign for “yes” or “no”?

TA: Well, I certainly think that the whole point of a plebiscite is that politicians become less important and people become more important. I mean that’s the whole point of a plebiscite. It takes it out of the hands of the parliament and puts it into the hands of the people and Tony Abbott’s opinion is no more important than anyone else’s opinion.

MG: But MPs would be free to put that opinion…

TA: Well, again, this is a matter for the partyroom to thrash out. But I’d certainly expect that there would be some people on one side, there will be other people on the other side and that will be true of the Labor Party as well.

MG: And some of your colleagues, for example I think Eric Abetz, have suggested that if the “yes” vote got up they would still feel free to vote against the enabling legislation. Would that be your view or would you think that if the “yes” vote got up that would be an instruction to MPs, as it were, from the electorate?

TA: Well, my view is that by putting this view to the people at a plebiscite, we’ve effectively said that the people are sovereign on this matter rather than the parliament.

MG: So you’d vote for enabling legislation …

TA: You’d have to respect the outcome.

MG: Do you undertake to serve a full three years?

TA: I do.

MG: And just finally you’ve got James Mathison, who compered Australian Idol, in your electorate standing against you. He obviously won’t win but do you have any message for the disillusioned young people that might be inclined to vote for him and did you follow the program at the time?

TA: Michelle, first point to make is that I am not complacent about the result in Warringah and I take nothing for granted. I’m certainly campaigning very vigorously in Warringah this time around. There are a range of candidates and the gentleman you mentioned is just one of them. Look, I can remember watching Australian Idol a few years ago and really enjoying the program. But there’s a world of difference between hosting a TV program and being a strong and effective member of parliament.

MG: I know I said that was the last question but perhaps I should add one postscript and that is: you used to be very close to Bronwyn Bishop and as we know that relationship fell apart over the speakership, the helicopter, the preselection and so on. Have you been in contact with her at all since she lost preselection?

TA: No, I haven’t. Look …

MG: Any reconciliation possible there?

TA: I would certainly like to think that at some point in the future the long friendship could be resumed. But there’s absolutely no doubt that the loss of the speakership was a very hard blow for Bronwyn, and I can understand that. And I guess the difficulty with the things that have happened over the last 12 months is that a number of relationships have been strained.

That doesn’t prevent people from doing what needs to be done in the interests of our party and our government and our country but there’s no doubt that things that have happened in the last 12 months have strained some relationships.

MG: Tony Abbott, thank you very much for talking with The Conversation today.

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