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Tony Abbott interview: ‘The prime minister is probably a little more than first among equals’

Tony Abbott has set forward his plans if he was to win the election. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott is striving for the athlete’s discipline in this final election week. When The Conversation interviewed him at his Parliament House office, after his National Press Club address, it was clear that he was thinking forward to government, although careful to add the necessary qualification about winning. In a wide-ranging discussion, he spoke of how he sees the prime ministership and the rather surprising highlight of his campaign.

Michelle Grattan: You’ve asserted a couple of times today at the National Press Club that you thought a Labor opposition would capitulate and agree to the repeal of the carbon tax.

Tony Abbott: That’s assuming there is the a change of government.

MG: Previously you have said that if they won’t you would go to a double dissolution. If your assessment turned out to be wrong…

TA: That view hasn’t changed. I just think it is highly unlikely to be necessary.

MG: So that is still a core promise that wouldn’t be broken under any circumstances?

TA: I would be amazed if it becomes necessary, but we’re going to abolish the carbon tax, we’re going to abolish the mining tax, no ifs, no buts, we’re going to.

MG: How long would you give the Senate - would you at least wait until the new Senate?

TA: I’m just not going to speculate … but as I said, I just think it’s almost inconceivable that the Labor Party would want to commit political suicide twice on this thing.

AAP/Lukas Coch

MG: More generally, you have gone after the Greens ferociously. If you were in government and the Greens happened to retain sole balance of power how would you try to deal with the situation?

TA: Well, I’d expect them to respect the mandate. My door is never closed to people, but I would be governing, should I get there, as a Coalition prime minister. not as someone who has suddenly gone all left of centre on the grounds that the Senate made me do it.

MG: But you think you could negotiate with the Senate if balance of power were held by right wing senators?

TA: You always have difficulties if you have to negotiate a majority, but I think we’ll be ok.

MG: But a Greens Senate might end in tears or a double dissolution?

TA: I reckon the Labor Party will want to run a million miles away from The Greens if they lose and I think the Labor Party will be very pragmatic after the election.

MG: We’ll get the mid-year budget update around October-November - do you think it’s likely we’ll again see a deterioration in the budget numbers?

TA: I don’t want to second guess what Treasury might tell me if we win the election this Saturday, but my instinct tells me that the fundamentals haven’t changed over the last few months and there was this dramatic deterioration in the budgetary position between March and July, and the PEFO certainly adverted to many downside risks.

MG: So you’re saying you’d expect it to get worse?

TA: No - I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’m not necessarily expecting it.

MG: You’ve promised a “no surprises” government, but inevitably your commission of audit will produce a number of surprises, some of them unpleasant…

TA: Well the commission of audit will give us a report and it will no doubt make some recommendations, but we will only act in ways that we think are consistent with the mandate.

MG: You have said you won’t break promises. But do you think this is realistic and what circumstances do justify breaking promises?

AAP/David Crosling

TA: I think you should move heaven and earth to keep commitments. I accept that in some rare circumstances for a whole host of reasons things might happen, beyond your control, which make the situation different to that which it was. But you should move heaven and earth to keep commitments and only if keeping commitments becomes almost impossible could you ever be justified in not keeping them. And I suspect the electorate would take a very dim view even in those circumstances.

MG: For example, one of the Whitlam government’s problems was that Whitlam refused to break election promises even when circumstances changed dramatically.

TA: One of the reasons why we’ve made what I think are pretty modest promises is because I don’t want to make commitments that I don’t think we can keep.

MG: There’s been discussion of a separate trade and investment portfolio, does this mean there would be a breakup of the present Foreign affairs and Trade department.

TA: No, it doesn’t. Without flagging precisely what might happen after the election if we win, it’s more than possible to have a trade and investment minister within the [current] arrangements.

MG: On higher education: you have at present in opposition the higher education area under the general education portfolio, while the government has it with the industry portfolio. Which way would you go with it in government?

TA: Again, I don’t want to flag what might happen after September 7, but what I’ve said all along is that people can assume they will be doing the same thing after the election as they’ve been doing before the election, so I guess the likelihood is that things will stay more or less as they are.

MG: Because you could have the people doing the same thing, but still shift it, given it’s a junior portfolio.

TA: You could do all of those things, but I’m just not going to say what might happen if we win.

MG: How do you see the prime role of higher education – as a contributor to boosting Australia’s productivity, or education for its own sake?

TA: Well I’m pretty old fashioned. Obviously the higher education sector is a contributor to GDP, and it is important for our economy, but in the end universities are there to pursue learning, they’re there to be the guardians of truth, they’re there to push the boundaries of knowledge. And while there are all sorts of economic spin offs as a result of that, my conservative old- fashioned view says these things are worthy in and of themselves, not just as a means to an end.

MG: How did you come to that view, were you influenced by your Oxford experience?

TA: I think I was probably influenced by Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman wrote about the university and Cardinal Newman was beloved by the Jesuits who taught me.

MG: You said today that you would like to see federal and state levels of government have more autonomy in their respective areas of responsibility, but as I remember you used to have quite centralist ideas.

TA: My views have evolved a bit here. As circumstances change different elements in your own thinking can come to the fore. And let’s not forget that five or six years ago I was a health minister in a Coalition federal government that was perceived to be competent and we were dealing with Labor state governments that were perceived to be less competent, and inevitably people demanded that the federal government to do something to address the perceived failings of state governments.

In more recent times, we’ve had a federal government that is perceived to be incompetent, dealing with state governments which are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt because they are newer, and they are Coalition governments. As well, I’ve gone from being a senior member of a government to being the leader of the Coalition and the natural orientation of the Coalition is federalist rather than centralist.

So way back when I was the health minister, I wasn’t tempted to a stronger role for the feds because I was a philosophical centralist, I was tempted to a stronger role because there were problems that the state’s weren’t addressing. At the moment I think the states are addressing those problems and I don’t think any pragmatic nationalist, which is where I think I’ve always been, would want to get involved in something which the states are handling more or less well.

MG: Kevin Rudd calls himself an economic nationalist…

TA: Well he never used to, he used to call himself an economic conservative, then he became a born again socialist and now he says he’s an economic nationalist. Kevin’s anything.

MG: Are you and economic nationalist or an economic rationalist?

TA: I don’t like tags and I think markets are very important and we should be reluctant to tamper with them; on the other hand sometimes they fail and sometimes even if they’re not failing there might be some overwhelming national interest that requires elements of non-market decision making.

MG: Turning to climate change, do you think Australians care less than previously about climate change?

AAP/Alan Porritt

TA: I think people are very passionate about the environment. I regard myself as a committed conservationist. I think people are less anxious about climate change, for three reasons.

First, I think they’re more conscious of the fact that the argument among the experts is not quite the one-way street that it might have seemed four or five years.

Second, the drought, which was a fairly severe drought, has well and truly broken in most of Australia anyway.

And third, Copenhagen changed any idea that there was some international consensus on how to deal with climate change.

MG: In broad terms what are the main differences between you and Kevin Rudd in foreign affairs?

TA: The focus would be Jakarta not Geneva. I think I would be less inclined to be presumptuous. Australia has a certain weight in foreign affairs and where we can make a difference and where it’s important to us, we should be more than ready to speak out and do what we can. But, I don’t think we should be getting too big for our boots in these matters.

There are so many areas in which Australians have an opinion and not a capacity, and we have to appreciate that.

MG: If you were prime minister, how you would run the cabinet, what style would you bring to that? The chairman of the board or something more upfront and out there?

AAP/Alan Porritt

TA: I don’t really want to say how I’m going to do a job that I’ve never done before. But I think I’m ready for it, given that I was a senior member of a functioning cabinet for seven years and I was a close student of an effective prime minister, John Howard, for many years before that.

The prime minister is probably a little more than first amongst equals, but any prime minister that tries to micromanage portfolios is going to come unstuck. A, it is impossible to do it with complex modern government and B, your colleagues will deeply resent it.

Most of the time you’ve got to allow colleagues to run their portfolios, it would only be if there was a serious problem that you would yourself get deeply involved.

MG: Do you think most things would go to the full cabinet or is having a kitchen cabinet important?

TA: All the significant decisions of government, where possible, should go to cabinet.

MG: Just reflecting on the campaign, the highs, the lows…

AAP Pool/Mike Bowers

TA: Well, without trying to predict the result, because a lot can happen in five days, so far, there haven’t been any lows. There has been a lot of activity, just about all of it purposeful and productive.

For me, probably the most exciting moment in the campaign was doing that PT session with the first armoured regiment in Darwin.

I loved it for two reasons, first, because it was an honour to be able to muck in with serving members of our armed forces. Second, it was a thrill to be able, more or less, to keep up, so I just loved every second of it. The only slight downside was when the PT instructor, one Corporal Youngs if I’m not mistaken, very kindly told a journalist that I’d done pretty well, but then added the rider: “for someone who is so old”.

So that’s been the highlight.

MG: If you manage to find yourself in the Lodge - you will be living in the lodge not in Sydney?

TA: I’m not getting ahead of myself, my disposition would be towards orthodoxy.

MG: So what about the exercise? Would you still be biking up Red Hill in the morning?

TA: I’d expect to still be going up Red Hill.

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