TONY ABBOTT & JOHN INTERVIEW – Episode 3

TONY ABBOTT & JOHN INTERVIEW – Episode 3

John Roskam:
Hello. My name is John Roskam. I’m the executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs. Welcome to this, the third and final conversation between myself and Tony Abbott about the Australian way of life. In this conversation we examine some of the characteristics of that way of life, what makes Australia so special, and we talk about the future of that Australian way of life. How we extend the benefits and the opportunities for all Australians into the future.

Tony Abbott, in this conversation I’d like to talk to you about the Australian way of life. We’ve covered what’s happening right now in the world and in politics. We’ve spoken about our history, the challenges Australia face. What I’d like to hone in on is the unique, special Australian way of life. What is it that makes Australia the best country in the world?

Tony Abbott:               
I think Australians don’t pigeonhole each other. I found when I was traveling overseas as a youngster, I was always absolutely ecstatic when I came across another Australian, because it didn’t matter where that person came from, what job that person did, what school that person had gone to. There was, if you like, a solidarity between all of us fellow Australians. A relate-ability that all of us had, and it was quite different in England. Now, I’m an incorrigible Anglophile as you’d expect John, but people in England in those days at least, and I suspect still to a great extent, they have a very strong sense of where they’re placed geographically, culturally, economically. That is their class system, if you like not. Not everyone’s got a title, but people think that they have a particular place in the hierarchy, in the pecking order.

As an Australian, I went to Oxford and I was immediately classless because I wasn’t part of that structure. And we don’t have inhibiting structures in this country. Or at least we didn’t have inhibiting structures in this country. Jack’s as good as his master, was a phrase that I can remember hearing often as a youngster. The famous story about Arty Fadden and Bill Slim, turning up in a country pub one day and having a beer and Bill Slim heading off to the bathroom at one stage, and the guy they were drinking with saying to Sir Arthur Fadden, “So, who was that guy?” And Fadden said, “Oh, that’s Sir William Slim, the Governor General of Australia.” And the guy on the bar said, “Well, what do you know? What a great country Australia is. Here’s Sir William Slim having a drink with two ordinary guys like us.”

John Roskam:               
Exactly.

Tony Abbott:               
And that was to the deputy prime minister. [crosstalk 00:03:19] In the pre-TV era, you could be someone who wasn’t instantly recognized when you walked into a pub.

John Roskam:               
Have we lost some of that?

Tony Abbott:               
Look. I don’t want to dwell on what we’ve lost, because so much of what’s good we’ve kept. And look, I can walk down the street here in Melbourne.

John Roskam:               
As we just did. We got a coffee and people said, “Hello, Tony. How are you?”

Tony Abbott:               
I walked down the street here this morning, and one guy says to me, “Good to see ya.” And I said, “Yeah, nice to be out and about.” And we walked a couple of blocks together, and we chatted about various things. I don’t know that he was particularly a political supporter of mine, but we had a very interesting conversation about all sorts of things. What was going on in the world, what he thought of President Trump and so on.

John Roskam:               
We’re classless. What else do we have? What are some of our other strengths?

Tony Abbott:               
Things like mateship and larrikinism are easy to scoff at-

John Roskam:               
And the stereotypes, or are they real?

Tony Abbott:               
…And they’re hard to define. But Australians typically, have lots of mates. Males and females typically have lots of mates, and they’re not quite friends necessarily, in the sense that there may be lots of your life which is not shared with many of your mates. But they’re people with whom there is an easy familiarity, a sense of bonding and comradeship. And larrikinism, we don’t like formality. We don’t like people who appear to give themselves airs and graces. We don’t like people who presume. We think that’s all something that’s… That sort of stuffiness is unbecoming. And I think these are typically Australian, in a way that they are not characteristic of either the United States or the United Kingdom, much as I admire and respect those sibling countries.

John Roskam:               
And in the US it’s wealth and in the UK it’s class.

Tony Abbott:               
That’s right. That’s right. But not withstanding the fact that we have more rich people in Australia than ever before. Not withstanding that we are starting to develop wealthy dynasties in a way that we previously haven’t. We are not defined by wealth and position in the way I think people all too often are in the countries that we normally compare ourselves with.

John Roskam:               
What does a fair go mean to you?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, a fair go means, if you have a go, you’ll get a go. Now, I don’t think anyone can demand something for nothing, but if someone is prepared to have a go, well, obviously we’ve got to do the right thing by them.

John Roskam:               
What do you mean? Unpack what… In business, in life, in community? What do you mean by have a go? Is it the entrepreneurial spirit?

Tony Abbott:               
It’s just making the most of your opportunities. For instance, you look at people on the footie field, and it’s not necessarily the best player you admire. It’s the bravest player. It’s the one who shows the most determination. And maybe it’s the guy that drops a few passes, but nevertheless doesn’t let it get to him. Makes up for dropping a couple of passes by doing a couple of really gutsy tackles, things like that. That’s what we respect. People who are doing the best they can given that not everyone is equally blessed with talent, not everyone is equally blessed by circumstance. I think that’s the interaction of the fair go with the have a go instinct.

John Roskam:               
Does that still exist?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, of course it does. Of course it does. And we might copy so many things from other places in our public culture, but I think in our community culture, in our personal interactions, there’s far more continuity than there is change.

John Roskam:               
Can you talk about that because it strikes me there is a growing difference between our community culture, which is very nice description of what we do in our homes, and in our suburbs. And the public culture that, whereby people say we should be more like America or more like a European country. Is there that split or emerging split there?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, again, in England, people can, particularly in cities, people can live for years, decades and not talk to their neighbors. Whereas it’s almost unimaginable that an Australian would not make some contact with the neighbors. Now, you don’t always get on with them as it happens, but nevertheless, at least there’s this sense that you should reach out to people. An Australian suburb, it might be part of a vast megalopolis in one sense, but really our suburbs-

John Roskam:               
It’s a very local [crosstalk 00:00:09:16].

Tony Abbott:               
Our suburbs are a series of urban villages. That’s what they really are. And and most Australians are not simply members of a family, or participants in a workplace. Most Australians have a range of other communities if you like, whether it’s the community of the sporting team that you play in, or your kids play in. Whether it be the community of the service group that you belong to, or your parents belong to, whatever it might be. There’s just this… The social fabric, I think, is quite deep in this country.

John Roskam:               
Describe Australian politics in the concept of the Australian way of life. So, our compulsory voting system, many people have said has tended to drive the two major parties to the center. They tend to be a little bit less ideological and less philosophical than political parties in other countries. How would you describe Australia’s political culture in this context that we are talking about?

Tony Abbott:               
[9:56] I think our political culture is shifting. I think it’s becoming more cultural and less economic. I think people’s voting patterns are less determined by the job… Well, less determined by the income they have, and more determined by their attitudes to cultural issues.

John Roskam:               
Is that because you think cultural issues are more salient? Or now that we have reached a certain standard of living, we can afford to engage in discussions about other things? Because it’s certainly a trend in the UK, in the US and we saw it with Brexit, with Trump and the claim that people were voting against their own self-interest, their economic self-interest. What do you ascribe it?

Tony Abbott:               
[10:49][11:21] Look. 5,000 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, most of the things that people did were the result of the need to get practical things done. To drive a bus, to grow a crop, to build a house, to draft a contract, all that kind of stuff. But the things… There are more and more jobs that are created by human rules-

John Roskam:               
[11:29][12:05] There are more meaningless jobs.

Tony Abbott:               
[11:30][12:06] As opposed to the necessities of life. [11:34][12:10] And I was talking to someone the other day about the difficulties getting a mine approval. And the problem with this particular mine is that it had been operating, and then there was some safety issues and it stopped operating. And to get it re-operating, you need subsidence reports, you need water table reports, you need threatened species reports. And not only does the proponent have to get consultants reports on all these subjects, but then the approving authority needs to get consultants reports on all these subjects. [12:24][12:59] And so you’ve got vast cohorts of people who aren’t doing anything that is obviously necessary, but they’re servicing a system which has become gargantuan. It’s gone beyond what you’d think is needed for decency and for common sense. [12:49][13:23] And the people-

John Roskam:               
And it’s self perpetuating.

Tony Abbott:               
[12:53][13:28] And the people who work in this vast superstructure, this imposed, vast imposed superstructure, servicing the bureaucracy one way or another, they tend to be of the left. Whereas, the more practical people who just want to get stuff done, tend to be of the right.

John Roskam:               
[13:15][13:49] What’s the Australian way of life at the moment, and what will be the Australian way of life in 20 years time?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, John Howard got into a lot of trouble for talking about wanting us to be relaxed and comfortable, but I think that is an important element of the Australian way of life.

John Roskam:               
Why do you think he did? I found the statement unobjectionable. From a Libertarian or Liberal or Conservative point of view, the idea that you’re… From a politician, that their first reaction is not that the government should be telling you what to do or how to live your life, but you should be able to do that with your family outside of the state. I found refreshing and welcome, but that still resonates. People are still attacking John Howard for what I thought was a reasonable statement from a Conservative politician.

Tony Abbott:               
I think what John was probably driving at was that he wanted us to be comfortable in our own skins, as individuals and as a people.

John Roskam:               
And as a nation. That’s right.

Tony Abbott:               
And you’ll remember, that a characteristic of the Keating government was this self castigation. He didn’t like our constitutional arrangements. He didn’t like what he thought was the provincialism of Australia. Remember he attacked Howard in parliament, said he was living in the museum of the fifties, with the Qualcast mower and the Morphy Richards toaster and stuff like that. Keating was always whipping us for our alleged social sins, whereas Howard-

John Roskam:               
Was there anything about Australia that Paul Keating liked?

Tony Abbott:               
That’s a very good question. I think this was one of the reasons why Bob Hawke and Paul Keating didn’t always see eye to eye, because Hawke was more like Howard in that respect. He was comfortable with the Australian character, accepted that we were what we were, and we are what we are. But, look. As I said, we can always be better, but we are going to be much better at improving if we feel we are building on a strong and sure foundation. And I like to say to people, let’s build on our strengths, let’s be as good as we can be. Let’s take our best values and live lives which better reflect them. Not that we should be radically different from what we are, because what we are is essentially good.

John Roskam:               
What should we be relaxed and comfortable about? And what should we not be relaxed and comfortable about?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, Scott Morrison put it quite well, I think, in the last election. He said he wanted our country to be safe, our economy to be strong and our people to be together. And I think that wasn’t a bad encapsulation. And the problem is that our country is probably not quite as safe as it was, given the deteriorating strategic situation. Our economy is not as strong as it should be, given our reluctance to build baseload power, dams, et cetera. And our people are not as together as we should be, given the embarrassment about our history and our values. So, look. We need to be very clear eyed about who our friends are around the globe-

John Roskam:               
Who are our friends?

Tony Abbott:               
Which countries are like-minded-

John Roskam:               
Who are our friends?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, obviously our friends are the five eyes. But countries like Japan, Singapore, India, are countries that we are very, very like-minded with, and we should have the strongest possible bonds with. So, we need to be much more clear eyed about who our friends are around the globe. We need to be much more hardheaded about our own economic future. And frankly, we shouldn’t let exaggerated and often trivial environmental concerns stop us from building the infrastructure that we need, building the dams we need, the baseload power that we need. And in terms of our national self-confidence, we have far more to be proud of than we have to regret, or to apologize for.

And sure, it is terrible that Aboriginal people are 10 times more likely to be in jail than non Aboriginal people. It’s terrible that an Aboriginal woman is something like 20 times more likely to be subject to domestic violence than a non Aboriginal woman. These things are terrible, but bemoaning them on its own isn’t going to help. What we need is an insistence, that for every Australian, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, the kids have got to go to school, the adults have got to go to work. Communities have got to be safe and that means they’ve got to be policed.

John Roskam:               
What can we do about this?

Tony Abbott:               
Look, it’s important that we speak up for ourselves, and that we-

John Roskam:               
It does take bravery.

Tony Abbott:               
It does take bravery, but let’s face it, all of us can and should be brave where we need to be. If we see someone about to step in front of a truck, we would tell them to stop, just because that’s what a good person does in a situation like that. And if we see someone, or hear someone saying something that we think is a serious error of fact or judgment, we should be prepared to say, well, why do you think that? Or, are you sure that’s the case? So, I think we do need to be a little bit braver and a little bit readier to engage in a courteous discussion with people, even on subjects that are contentious. But all of us I think, can play a part in the evolution of our society.

Years and years ago, I was very close, as you know, to the late great B.A. Santamaria, and Bob always said to people, “Look, some of you are more Labor. Some of you are more Liberal. Join the political party of your choice and try to make it better, because we need better political parties in this country. And we need to have at least two political parties in this country that are capable of running a sensible responsible government. And if you don’t do it, who will? If not you, who?” So look, all of us have to do our bit, whether it’s joining the IPA, whether it’s joining the political party of your choice, whether it’s speaking up in your workplace, whether it’s being prepared to chat to your children and grandchildren about issues. We’ve all got to do more, because if there’s one thing that is absolutely certain, it’s that a majority that stays silent does not long remain a majority.

John Roskam:               
What’s the Australian way of life in 20 years time?

Tony Abbott:               
Well, hopefully it will reflect the best features of the Australian way of life today. We will be welcoming and accepting. We will be generous and free spirited. We won’t be frightened of telling a joke. We’re prepared to give a go and to have a go. We want a better future for our kids, and we expect a better future for our kids.

John Roskam:               
Tony Abbott, that’s a wonderful note on which to finish. Thank you.

Tony Abbott:               
Thanks mate.

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