TONY ABBOTT & JOHN INTERVIEW – Episode 1

TONY ABBOTT & JOHN INTERVIEW – Episode 1

John Roskam:
Hello. My name is John Roskam, I’m the executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs. Welcome to this series of conversations between myself and former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, about the Australian way of life. The Australian way of life that we are so fortunate to enjoy is currently being threatened. The ideas of a fair go, freedom of speech, commitment to private enterprise, being challenged. At the Institute of Public Affairs we believe the benefits of the Australian way of life must and should be extended to all Australians.

In this, the first of three conversations I have with Tony, we talk about the coronavirus health crisis. We discuss the impact of public policy experts, on the response of governments. And we also examine the split between the attitude of the media and the rest of the country to how we work and how we stay in jobs. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Tony Abbott, welcome to the Institute of Public Affairs for this conversation about the Australian way of life. I’ve got the lockdown stubble, you’re looking fit and healthy. What have you been doing for the last two months?

Tony Abbott:
Look, about the only thing we’ve been allowed to do is exercise. We’ve been given more freedom to exercise in New South Wales than you’ve been given here in Victoria and I’ve been making the most of it.

John Roskam:
And one of the things I want to talk to you about is what has the lockdown and the government’s reaction revealed about us as Australians? Is there anything that has surprised you? So at one level, I think there’s been a great degree of national unity and we’ve come together in a real crisis and we’ve understood what needs to be done, but on the other hand, personally, I’ve been disappointed that I don’t think there’s been a quality of sacrifice. I think that these crisis has revealed the difference between those who are part of the productive economy and those who tell us how we should live our lives. Is there anything that struck you about this?

Tony Abbott:
Yeah. Let’s get to that in a second, John, but just before we do, [2:20] I’m very big on the need for accountability. Now, an elected politician is accountable. You are accountable every day to the media, you are accountable whenever parliament sits to the other side of politics and you are accountable to the people every three or four years at an election. So every elected politician is accountable for his or her life. No expert is accountable to anyone other than the vague concept of peer review, perhaps.

John Roskam:
[2:59] Whatever that might be.

Tony Abbott:
[3:02] And as a former health minister, I have a great deal of respect for the medical profession. When I was the health minister, thinking about a potential pandemic back in the Howard government days, I worked very closely with the then chief medical officer and the other experts. But in the end, the experts can advise it’s got to be the accountable politician who decides.

John Roskam:
[3:26] Have you been surprised by how quickly politicians, not just in Australia, but around the world seem to have hid behind medical experts and the science? And of course, when you talk about the medicine or the science or the evidence, it depends, what scientist are you listening to? Are you listening to one from America, from Sweden, from here? Did that surprise you in any way?

Tony Abbott:
I frankly have been a little dismayed at how deferential the politicians have been, the elected accountable politicians have been to unelectable unaccountable experts, particularly given the expert opinion is invariably contentious. One expert says one thing , other expert says another thing. If you take the corona crisis as a classic instance, we had the Imperial College epidemiologists claiming that the United Kingdom could lose up to a half a million people. And then you had the Oxford University epidemiologists saying that, “Look, it’s not nothing. It is serious, but it might not be all that much more serious than a severe flu season.” Some people were saying that the death rates could be up to 5% a bit like the Spanish flu pandemic, others were saying very early on that it was much more likely that the death rate would be 0.3, 0.4%.

John Roskam:
What does it say about politicians and what the public expect of politicians? It was almost as if from my perspective, the public were happy to cede democracy, accountability, transparency from the politicians. They were happy to give it up to the experts. When did we become enthralled to the experts?

Tony Abbott:
Well, this is a good question too John. Now-

John Roskam:
It’s not the Australian way either, I would argue.

Tony Abbott:
A lot of people look at the politicians in the parliament and all they see is the argument at question time. And understandably enough, many people recoil from the combativeness of that. And they just want the whole thing to be more civil, more civilized-

John Roskam:
Can’t we all agree.

Tony Abbott:
… if you like, more polite. Can’t we all agree? Hence the call for a consensus, hence the desire to listen to the experts and just do what we’re told.

John Roskam:
Be bipartisan.

Tony Abbott:
And just do what we’re told. Now, look, we do have to take the experts seriously. We should, wherever we can, strive for unity, but as anyone who’s ever been in a tight situation knows, someone has got to make a call. Inevitably, there will be contention about every hard call, and you don’t succeed by splitting the difference and taking a lowest common denominator approach to the extent that anyone can succeed in this veil of tears. It’s normally by making the best call he or she can in the circumstances that you’ve got with the facts as you know them to hand, and let the outcome vindicate the decision. I know we’re going off into a different topic now, but-

John Roskam:
But I think this is a really important discussion about democracy. So we had the beginning of the crisis and you had the mini sections of the media saying, “At last, now we can hand politics back to the experts. We won’t be democratic. We won’t be populist. We won’t be Trump like. Let the experts, let the adults in the room take charge.” And for me that’s profoundly undemocratic and very dangerous.

Tony Abbott:
They want to do is live in a doctocracy. It should always be a democracy. I found myself thinking many weeks ago, recalling the words of Clemenceau I think it was who said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Well, if I may paraphrase him, pandemics are far too important to be left to the doctors. In the end, it is vital that the elected politicians maintain a direction of events, a direction of policy. Yes, take the doctors seriously, listen to all the epidemiologists, not just to the ones that are, as it were banging the panic drum, listen to all of them, make the best decision you can and then get on with it. And look, if down the track, it turns out that things don’t work out as you plan, sure, revise the decision you made earlier, but in the end it’s got to be the elected accountable politician in charge.

John Roskam:
And for me, that’s one of the divisions I think we’ve seen between the experts and the Democrats and democracy. Another division that has struck so many people is that between the members of the productive economy, the people who are losing their jobs, the people who may come back to businesses that will never reopen, and the public sector, sections of the media, tertiary sector that have been telling the rest of Australia how to live without being directly impacted on it themselves. What does that say about Australia?

Tony Abbott:
One of the most grating phrases of this whole pandemic has been we’re all in this together-

John Roskam:
If only.

Tony Abbott:
… because frankly, we haven’t been in it together. We have got a private sector calamity happening. And again, much as I respect the professionalism of the public service, no public servant has lost his or her job, no public servant has had his or her pay cut. In fact, in some states, their pay has been dramatically increased. In Victoria, I think politicians’ pay has gone up while there’s been this massive job shedding in the private sector, and the people who’ve still got jobs have in many instances had a 20% pay cut. So look, let’s not please repeat this grating phrase that we’re all in this together, because what we are seeing out there at the moment is a calamity for the private sector.

John Roskam:
Tony, as you know, the IPA situation is that there should be an equality of sacrifice in these difficult economic circumstances. An IPA commission poll said something like three quarter of Australians think there should be a 20% pay reduction for politicians and senior public servants. I know you probably can’t comment on what the government can do at the moment, but you did something very similar in 2014. Do you want to talk about that and your thinking behind that?

Tony Abbott:
Okay. Well, let’s talk about the 20% pay cut and then we’ll talk about the 2014 budget. I’m not normally a big fan of the New Zealand prime minister, but as I understand it, members of parliament and senior public servants in New Zealand have taken a 20% pay cut for six months. I certainly would like to think that all of the private sector workers in Australia who have taken a 20% pay cut-

John Roskam:
Or more, yes.

Tony Abbott:
… will have their wages restored swiftly because I want us to be a high wage country, not a low wage country. So I think in this instance, following Jacinda Ardern temporarily reducing the salaries of MPs and say public servants earning over $150,000 a year would be a sensible thing to do. Now to get onto your further point, and this is a more fundamental shift that’s been going on for a long time. We used to talk about the working class, the middle class. These days I think it’s probably more meaningful to talk about the talking class and the doing class.

Now, the talking class, public servants, university academics, people who talk for a living, analysts, experts of one sort or another, the numbers have increased, the prestige has increased. The doing classes, manufacturing workers, trades people, a lot of the professionals, engineers, technicians and so on, their numbers have in many instances shrunk and their prestige has declined. The princes of the working class used to be auto workers, steel workers-

John Roskam:
The boilermakers they used to enter parliament.

Tony Abbott:
Exactly right. And of course the glory of the labor party in the old days was that if you were a boilermaker, or an engine driver, in the case of Ben Chifley, you could via the Labor Party become prime minister. As Kim Beazley famously or infamously, depending upon your perspective said back in I think the 1970s, “When I entered parliament, the Labor Party was the creme of the working class. As I leave parliament, it becomes the dregs of the middle class.” Now, interestingly, there have been further cultural shifts since then, and the middle class itself as I think has tended to differentiate-

John Roskam:
And I think it’s tended to split.

Tony Abbott:
… between the doers and the talkers.

John Roskam:
Just on that, when did talkers become disdainful of jobs? So during this debate, we’ve had, “Well, it’s the economy versus lives.” Well, no it’s lives and lives. And the idea that every worker doesn’t have an essential job, that some workers are more important than others. When did they become so disconnected in a real world?

Tony Abbott:
Well, this is a very fair point. How did it happen? I suspect a part of it was when families didn’t want their kids to do a trade, they wanted their kids to go to university. Now, I’m all in favor of kids going to university, but just at the moment, I suspect that too many of our kids go to university and not enough of our kids go and learn a trade. For instance, do we need more lawyers? No. Do we need more skilled teachers? No. Arguably, we need better school teachers, but we certainly don’t need more. What we need is we need more sparkies, we need more plumbers, we need more mechanics, we need more welders.

You go on to major construction sites and all too often, a lot of the people working there now are short term workers from overseas. Now, again, I’m not against short term workers from overseas. I think many of those short term workers from overseas want to join our team and in the fullness of time, become wonderful Australians. But nevertheless, no family should be in any way embarrassed if their son or daughter decides to become a hairdresser rather than a school teacher, or decides to become a nurse rather than a doctor.

John Roskam:
And the private sector hasn’t done in recent years, a very good job at arguing for private sector, for economic freedom. And those supporting government have done a wonderful job at arguing for bigger government and higher taxes.

Tony Abbott:
One of the interesting shifts in recent times has been the way large business has really-

John Roskam:
Vacated the field.

Tony Abbott:
Exactly right. Public companies have really lost their mojo, I think.

John Roskam:
Oh no. I’d correct you they’ve lost their mojo for some things. They’ve gained their mojo from getting in politics, for trendy, popular courses, but not for wealth creation.

Tony Abbott:
Look, I couldn’t help but notice the enthusiasm of large public companies to take a position on same sex marriage, for argument’s sake. Very few of them were prepared to take a position on the need for a less regulated economy, the need for more freedom in the marketplace.

John Roskam:
And even during this crisis, a number of business leaders, one or two said, “We need to start to begin to get back to work.” They were followed by no one.

Tony Abbott:
I know, I know. Too many big public companies have basically become private sector bureaucracies. And it’s interesting that the really dynamic large companies still tend to be virtually family businesses, News, Linfox, Visy-

John Roskam:
And individuals with a vision for the future.

Tony Abbott:
They’re founder led often, or they still have large aspects of the family company about them. They’ve got a strong ethos, a strong culture. They haven’t been taken over by a professional managerial class whose main loyalty seems to be to their pay package.

John Roskam:
So talking about the professional managerial class. That leads us into the future coming out of this, if we want to think about the future, let’s go to where we were. What sort of country was Australia three months ago, going into this? As we chart a way out, what were the characteristics of the country three months ago?

Tony Abbott:
Well, what are the characteristics of, of Australia? We’re prosperous, we’re free, we’re fair. The two things that I think most characterize Australia are this instinct for the fair go, but the corresponding instinct to have a go. And I keep saying, if you want to get a go, you’ve got to give a go. If you want to get a fair go, you’ve got to have a go.

John Roskam:
I’m going to ask you about the second part in particular. Talk to me about the have a go, do we still have that. Red tape is Australia’s largest industry, less small businesses are being started than ever before in our history. More people are wanting to go into a public sector that is growing. Do we still have that have a go culture that I think we once had?

Tony Abbott:
Well, interestingly, John, I think the bushfires showed the have a go spirit. In New South Wales there were tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters out there.

John Roskam:
We raised tens of millions of dollars.

Tony Abbott:
Tens of millions of dollars for the fire services, for the victimsm, for bushfire recovery, and so on. Lots of people rallied to the stricken communities. We had volunteers going in at every level to try to help. So look, I think they have a go spirit is alive and well, it’s just that it needs the right circumstances to come to the fore. And too often circumstances, particularly government can conspire to crush it. And for me-

John Roskam:
Is government crushing it more?

Tony Abbott:
Well for me, the dispiriting aspect of the current crisis, the Corona crisis is that we aren’t being told to go out and fight for our country, we’re being told to stay at home. Don’t be active for your country, be passive for your country. Now I think that is a dispiriting position. I’m not saying that an element of it wasn’t necessary, but it’s a fundamentally dispiriting position to adopt. We are not by nature, a passive people.

John Roskam:
That dispiriting view of how we participate, some would argue, has been adopted and accepted and embraced by such a large part of the community. 60 to 70% of Australians are not uncomfortable with aspects of what has happened.

Tony Abbott:
Yeah. And look, I can understand people watching the footage from Italy when their hospital system was melting down. I can certainly understand the real fear that gripped large sections of our community for a few weeks there from the middle of March on. But look, I always think we should take counsel of our hopes, at least as much of our fears, and I don’t want us to be a frightened and fearful people. Sure, there are real threats. If you’re at sea in a storm, that’s a real threat. If you’re in front of a fire front, that’s a real threat. If the brakes fail in your car, that’s a real problem, but we have become pretty good at scaring ourselves, at over scaring ourselves. We should face the future with courage and ultimately with confidence. We should never allow ourselves to think that the situation is hopeless and we’re all doomed unless we take some drastic and largely destructive action.

John Roskam:
And that applies to many walks of life.

Tony Abbott:
Well, of course it does. The obvious case in recent times is climate change. Now, nuclear annihilation was a real prospect when the United States and the old Soviet Union were at loggerheads. It could become a real prospect again, depending upon how things develop with China. But without wanting to distract this discussion, climate change is not in the same league. The idea that the world is going to be fundamentally changed by a difference of a couple of degrees in temperature over several decades, it just doesn’t rate in terms of serious threats.

John Roskam:
Talking of climate change and the political contours of the community, you, a little while ago gave some remarks to the international democratic union that were very significant, and then your remarks were published in an article in The Australian. And you made some really important points that I want to ask you about. The first point you talked about was the fact that we are going to be giving up some of the things we’ve focused on. We’re focused on identity politics. We’ve understood that red tape has been to large a part of our lives and some of these things are now going to go. Can you talk a little bit about this? You said that we have suffered a big hit to the economy, we’ve suffered long lasting change, and now we have to start to rebuild.

Tony Abbott:
A real crisis, puts everything else into perspective. The corona crisis has not been nearly as severe in Australia as in other countries, but it was a real crisis. I don’t want to minimize it, even though I think that the lockdown in response was with the wisdom of hindsight, probably too severe, and certainly it’s gone on for too long. And in the face of the experience of something which can and does kill people, something which hasn’t killed anyone and which needn’t kill anyone, I think should take its proper perspective. Now, the other thing about the corona crisis is it will lead to a massive hit on our prosperity, an absolutely massive hit on our prosperity. Even if the economy bounces straight back in the coming weeks and months, there will be a $200 billion plus-

John Roskam:
That generations will pay for.

Tony Abbott:
… burden of debt that will pay for that will ultimately have to be paid for. So whatever way you look at it, there are going to be very serious longterm, adverse economic consequences from this. And given this unexpected element of impoverishment, the last thing we should be doing is further policy induced impoverishment in the name of something like reducing emissions. Now, obviously, I think we should rest as lightly as we can on the only planet that we’ve got. But the idea that we should further add to our costs, further inhibit jobs, further increase our costs in a extreme effort to reduce emissions, I think will look even crazier in the future than it did in the past.

John Roskam:
Do you think government will inevitably become bigger as a result of this?

Tony Abbott:
No, it shouldn’t. It absolutely shouldn’t. We should, as swiftly possible move to end all the extra spending, to end all the additional restrictions, and in so doing, in moving back to normalcy, we should try to make it a better normalcy in the recent future than it’s been in our recent past. So we should try to get some of, I think the ideological anxieties, climate change-

John Roskam:
Identity politics.

Tony Abbott:
Identity politics, gender fluidity, all this kind of stuff, let’s see these things for what they were, fads, essentially, intellectual fads to put it at its kindest, and let’s focus on what really matters, which is having a richer, freer, fairer and more successful society in the future than we’ve had in the recent past.

John Roskam:
And to come back to an earlier point that you made. So you don’t believe it’s inevitable that government will get bigger, that the public will expect more from government, that the public will trust public servants more?

Tony Abbott:
Not at all.

John Roskam:
Now, this is an important point that you’re making.

Tony Abbott:
I do think that people are waking up to the real nature of the Chinese communist regime, and even highly orthodox establishment figures like Dennis Richardson are now saying that we need to increase our military spending beyond 2% up towards 3% of GDP. If that’s Dennis’s view, I think we have to take increases in military spending very seriously. It’s also become glaringly obvious that we do need more self sufficiency in some areas of manufacturing. Now, government will have to take some action there-

John Roskam:
Is that tariffs?

Tony Abbott:
… but that doesn’t mean that government will have to directly produce medicines, directly produce PPE, et cetera, itself. Government should sensibly work with the private sector to ensure that we are more resilient in what might be described as the essentials of modern life.

John Roskam:
How do we avoid the old tariff regime? How do we avoid putting up the drawbridge?

Tony Abbott:
Well, again, I think it’s got to be much more sophisticated. What I would like to see us do is if you like an audit, a very thorough audit of exactly what we can and can’t do in this country. And then we need to have a very thorough discussion of what we think we must be able to do in this country, and what we think we can rely on others and which others for.

John Roskam:
Is that a new economic nationalism or is it something different?

Tony Abbott:
Well, again, I think it’s simply… Again, the best way to produce things is invariably by maximizing the use of the market, but-

John Roskam:
By not having the world’s most expensive electricity, some of the world’s most restrictive labor laws, some of the world’s most extensive red tape.

Tony Abbott:
But, we do still want to have some of the world’s highest wages.

John Roskam:
That’s right.

Tony Abbott:
Because we want-

John Roskam:
And a social safety net.

Tony Abbott:
… we want our people to be well off, but if we want to stay well off, we’ve got to be smarter than we necessarily have recently been. Smarter and just more savvy if you like, not just academic intelligence, but savvy, street smart intelligence. So that’s what we need. So there may be some things that we’re perfectly happy to rely on the world for. There may be other things that we’re only prepared to rely on our friends for, and there may be further things that we feel we need to rely on ourselves for. So I think these are the sorts of conversations that we need to have.

John Roskam:
Have politicians been honest with the public about this? So for a long time, we’ve heard there’s actually a moral equivalence between China and the United States. A lot of people have argued, well, there’s not one, might be an official ally, but there’s not that big a difference. I think Australia’s now understanding, there is a difference.

Tony Abbott:
John, just as in the old days, some people argued moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union. Plainly there was no moral equivalence. And look, I am pro-China, but I am very, not very much, not pro the current Chinese government. And while as prime minister, I was more than happy to conclude a free trade agreement with China, I think remarkably China actually gave more than we did in that free trade agreement. Our economy was already very open. They actually opened theirs up somewhat to us.

But the reality is that over the last five years, what have we seen from China? We’ve seen the militarization of the South China sea, we’ve seen bullying of its neighbors, repression in Hong Kong, belligerence towards Taiwan. We’ve seen the internment of perhaps a million wages. We’ve seen this grotesque social credit system, 1984 on steroids, if you like of kind of high tech enforced conformism. We’ve had president Xi declare himself emperor for life. This is a different China. At least we understand the difference more clearly than perhaps we did five years ago. And that, I think needs to inform our actions in the years ahead.

John Roskam:
And some of this reassessment is going to involve Australia becoming more confident about itself. It is going to involve Australians understanding things that we’ve spoken about, our culture, our institutions, our freedoms, 2000 years of Western civilization that has given us a liberal democracy.

As we draw this conversation to a conclusion, how do we rediscover some of that confidence? So it used to be the conversation that Australians and Australian governments don’t pick winners. In fact, we’ve picked lots of winners. We’ve picked institutions that have critiqued our culture. We’ve picked an education curriculum that has criticized our nation. How do we rebalance some of this conversation towards mainstream Australian values and understand our successes, also appreciate our weaknesses, but build confidence of what we are as a country? So we’ve got in the bookshelf Douglas Murray, the great British journalist who of course, came to Australia. And he said, “I’ve been to very few countries that seem to not like themselves as much as Australia does.” How do we overcome that?

Tony Abbott:
[34:36] Well, I’m not saying that you can just change the zeitgeist overnight, but [34:45] if more of us are more truthful about our strengths as well as about our weaknesses, if more of us are more truthful about our opportunities as well as just our perils, if more of us are more confident about our ability to meet challenges and beat them, well, I think we will be so much better off.

I mean, I spent a bit of time as a youngster playing rugby and ultimately coaching rugby teams. You’ll only win if you have persuaded your team that they can win. You never win a sporting encounter by demoralizing your own team. And too many people in leadership positions in our country have been busy demoralizing us for too long. [35:43] Whether they’re school teachers and university lecturers with the black armband view of history, whether it’s politicians of the left, scaring us to death over climate change, whether it’s, I suppose, politicians of the right who have sometimes succumbed to cultural despair, I think we just need so much more of a can do attitude.

Now, it’s not going to be easy. Life is not easy as one of my predecessors once said, but it’s livable if we have the right approach.

John Roskam:
Tony Abbott, thank you so much.

Tony Abbott:
Thanks, John.

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