The Honourable Tony Abbott, former Australian Prime Minister speaks to the participants of the QUT Public Sector Management Program on the idea of the public good, his achievements as Prime Minister and Australia’s place on the world stage.
00:00:09 Kate Joyner
Welcome to QUT ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX Professional and Executive Education for the real world. I’m your host, Kate Joyner. Today we bring you an interview with former and 28th Prime Minister of Australia, The Honourable Tony Abbott. This is by way of counterpoint to an earlier interview we recorded with the Honourable Kevin Rudd as part of our national Public Sector Management Program. The interview took place over Zoom with an audience of 120 public servants who are current or former participants of our QUT Public Sector Management Program. Mr Abbott answered questions submitted by the group including his proudest achievements as PM and his advice for practising public servants.
00:00:50 Kate Joyner
This is an edited version of a longer webinar recording, which is available through the QUTeX website. The event was brought into being by QUTeX colleagues, Dr Tony Peloso, who was the host and Catherine Batch, who was event impresario. Enjoy Tony Abbott on Leadership and the Public Good.
00:01:07 Tony Abbott
This whole question of public value, let me come at it in this way. By posing a couple of questions and offering a couple of thoughts.
00:01:19 Tony Abbott
First question, I want to pose is “Why do people go into public life?” Whether it’s into Parliament, whether it’s into the administration, whether it’s into any entity which has a role or an influence on public life.
00:01:35 Tony Abbott
It’s easy to be skeptical about politicians. It’s easy to be, I suppose, pretty sour about public servants and other officials, but in the end, no one goes into any form of public life without a strong sense of idealism and without wanting to do good.
00:01:54 Tony Abbott
I want to make that very clear. Everyone is in it to try to do the right thing by their own lights. Now, next question I want to pose is “What do the public expect of their members of Parliament? What do the public expect of their governments? What do the public expect of officials who they’re dealing with?”
00:02:17 Tony Abbott
Now, if you ask them, they’d probably scratch their heads and say “Well, we want them to be honest. We want them to be authentic. We want them to be hardworking.”
00:02:28 Tony Abbott
If you’re a voter of the right, you probably want them to be promoting more freedom. If you’re a voter of the left, you probably want them to be promoting more fairness. Of course, there’s an intimate relationship between freedom and fairness. With no freedom, there can be no fairness, and I suppose with total license there can be no fairness, either, can there? So, there is a relationship between those but in the end, regardless of your own ideological or intellectual predispositions, what people want of government at all levels is to get things done, to address practical problems.
00:03:18 Tony Abbott
And if you ask the person in the street, what are the things that matter to him or to her, he or she will say “Look, I want my cost of living to be manageable. I want my job to be secure. I want my business to be prosperous. I want my housing to be affordable. I want my community to be safe. I want a better future for my kids.” It’s not all that complex, in fact it’s pretty straightforward. Now, I think that there’s enormous frustration generally in Australia, but throughout the Western world, with governments at this time.
00:04:06 Tony Abbott
And the problem is not so much any moral failing on the part of politicians and officials. The problem is not that these times are uniquely difficult. The problem, I think is that it is actually harder and harder to get things done.
00:04:30 Tony Abbott
Harder and harder to get things done. Now yes, in part, that’s because our polity is more fractious than ever. I suspect that our society is more fragmented and polarised than it was in the recent past. In part this is because parliaments are less workable, upper houses are much more bolshie than in the past. Our Federation is much more complex and I would say confused than in the past.
00:05:07 Tony Abbott
But a big, big feature of this is that at every level, more and more decisions have been subcontracted from elected, accountable politicians to unelected, unaccountable officials. Now I’ve gotta say here, given that there’s quite a few officials on this call that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the diligence and the competence and the professionalism of the Australian official class. The public servants that I’ve worked with over the years have all been excellent people. But, I think the system is becoming more and more gummed up.
00:05:51 Tony Abbott
Take planning, for instance, here in New South Wales. Every time there’s a problem, a new body is set up. No old bodies are ever abolished, but new bodies are set up, which means that the cost and the complexity, the time and the opportunities for obstruction and lawfare and all the rest of it are just becoming almost endless, and I think this is a problem for our country and it’s a problem for our system. Now, all of these subcontracting out of decision-making away from elected accountable Members of Parliament and governments towards unelected, unaccountable officials, are justified in terms of wanting to depoliticise the system, take the politics out. Let the experts decide.
00:06:45 Tony Abbott
But the trouble is experts in their own way can be just as tunnel-visioned, just as closed-minded, just as biased, if you like, as politicians. And yet the one thing you can’t do with an expert is vote him or her out at the next election. If you don’t like what’s being done.
00:07:11 Tony Abbott
So, I think this is a massive problem. I think the real democratic deficit in our country is that more and more stuff is not in the hands of elected, accountable politicians and in the hands of unelected, unaccountable officials. Now, you might say, “Well, this is all very well, but what’s it to do with public good, the topic of this discussion?”
00:07:40 Tony Abbott
Well, as I understand the concept of public good, it’s how does Government in its totality contribute to the common good? It seems to me like an academic way, if I may say so, of approaching the age old challenge of “How do we do our job better?” And if I may say so, one of the reasons why academic faculties of government and political science aren’t perhaps taken as seriously as they should be by the practitioners of government and the practitioners of politics is because there is this tendency to make everything too academic.
00:08:37 Tony Abbott
You may or may not find this hard to credit, but this is only the second time in 25 years or more in public life, 26 years now since I was first elected to Parliament, it’s only the second time in all that quarter century that I’ve been asked by an Australian university to participate in its discussions any way, shape or form. And you’d think having been involved in government in the Parliament for a quarter century, on the front bench for 20 years, in the ministry for 11 years and as Prime Minister for two years, you’d think I’d have something useful to contribute, wouldn’t you? Anyway, that’s a little bit of an aside.
00:09:30 Tony Abbott
I just want to finish up these opening remarks by taking a real live issue and offering you a few thoughts. Now, obviously managing the pandemic is the complete preoccupation of just about everyone in public life right now. Let’s look at pandemic management in Victoria. Let’s look at the policy, let’s look at the practice. Well, at every point in time we’ve been told by members of the Victorian government from the Premier down, that what they are doing has been done on the advice of experts. Well, it now seems that some of the experts, whether it’s the Chief Health Officer or the Police Commissioner are coming out and saying “Well, we didn’t advise you to do this.”
00:10:20 Tony Abbott
Can I just say that politicians who want to avoid scrutiny will often take refuge in telling their audience that what they’re doing is done on expert advice. It’s a way of, if you like, establishing your moral authority over and above that of anyone who would oppose questions. And, look, in the end my own view is that experts advise. Governments decide. And you should never try to share around responsibility by attributing what you do to someone else, however eminent.
00:11:08 Tony Abbott
Now let’s look briefly at the practice. Well, there are two things that you’ve gotta do in a pandemic if you’re a state government. First of all you’ve got to manage quarantine as well as you possibly can, and plainly that wasn’t done. There wasn’t a lot of public good in the way that was handled. And secondly, you’ve got to organise testing, tracing and isolating. And while some states have managed pretty well, after the initial Ruby Princess catastrophe, New South Wales seems to have gotten on top of this about as well as anyone can expect.
00:11:54 Tony Abbott
But again, big problems in Victoria. Elementary mistakes. I mean, I heard the Chief Health Officer yesterday talking about “Oh look, everything’s going pretty well. We are getting to people who have tested positive within 24 hours and we’re getting to their contacts within 48 hours.
00:12:17 Tony Abbott
Well, frankly, if if that’s regarded as good performance, no wonder things have got so completely out of control. Test results have gotta be got back quickly. People who are positive need to be contacted instantaneously, within a couple of hours it should be possible to at least make a very comprehensive start on contact tracing and again in this era of mobile phones and text messages, it ought to be possible to get a hold of people well within those sorts of time frames, and to think that 24 hours for the primary person and 48 hours for their Contacts is somehow acceptable is just absurd. Absolutely absurd.
00:13:07 Tony Abbott
So, again I get back to the fundamental question. Do the job properly. The best way to realise “public good” is for everyone in public life, from the lowest official to the highest politician to do your job, as well as possible. And look, we can have all the, if you like, nice to do things in the world like businesses that go out and sponsor orchestras and provide money for the local footy team and government departments with massive social inclusion programs and all the rest of it. Nice to do. But anything that detracts from getting the basic job done, in my judgement, does not advance public good at all.
00:14:08 Tony Abbott
Because it’s the job that the public expects you to do. If you’re a policeman, keep the streets safe. If you’re a nurse, provide the best possible service to everyone who is under your care. If you’re a teacher, try to inspire intellectual curiosity and ensure that those are under your tutelage have the essentials to be able to make sense of whatever subject it might be. Get those basic things done and everything else is essentially just the icing on the cake. So, Catherine and Tony, thanks very much for the chance to say a few words and over to the questions.
00:14:55 Tony Peloso
Thank you, Mr Abbott, for those insights, that passion and that clarity. And a couple of things that I immediately take out, your expression of wanting to do good. And I certainly, with the experience that we have with the members of the PSMP cohort, absolutely we know that they show up with passion. I do love those two comments or three words that you used, I would summarise as fairness and freedom. That is wonderful, we talk a lot about fairness. Australians are very fairness-oriented. That was a very insightful piece about fairness and freedom, and I hear very strongly you make the point about responsibility and I think that’s very important. Now, I think you’re going to allow us to go off script for a moment here. The comment that you made about we’re the second university in your time in public life I think is very touching.
00:15:50 Tony Peloso
We are the University for the Real World and we do, just a little plug, we do believe, and I do want to, Catherines deliberate passion to have people at the highest level of public service in Australia to come and address, so I think that’s a credit to Catherine and also to you, sir, for accepting our invitation. Thank you.
00:16:10 Tony Abbott
Well, look, one of the things that ex Prime Ministers can with honour do, Tony, is trying to contribute to the insights and the understanding of the coming generation. So, any university within reason that would like to avail itself of my insights such as they are, would be very welcome.
00:16:33 Tony Peloso
Thank you, thank you. Now we have one of our favourite questions for you right here. Thinking of your time as Prime Minister, what are you most proud of?
00:16:45 Tony Abbott
OK, well, look quite apart from the fact that, really to get there is something to be proud of, given that even now in 120 years there have only been 30 people who have been Prime Minister of this wonderful country. The two things that I would be most proud of, and look, you know it can never be about me, it’s gotta be about the country, otherwise you’re kind of missing the point.
00:17:14 Tony Abbott
But no one thought we could stop the illegal boat arrivals and we did.
00:17:20 Tony Abbott
I can remember talking to Phillip Ruddock and John Howard, both of whom had been involved at the heart of stopping a smaller earlier wave, both of them thought the way we faced in the middle of 2013 was really completely out of control and beyond stopping. But we did that.
00:17:42 Tony Abbott
And in order to do so, we had to overcome a lot of official skepticism from people who had been part of failing to stop the boats under the previous government. I’m pleased to say there was one senior official out of about a dozen who were remained optimistic that that could be done and he was right, and all of the doubters and naysayers were wrong.
00:18:07 Tony Abbott
One of the naysayers said “Look, you know you’re going to upset the Indonesians, to which my response was, “Well, of course we’re gonna upset the Indonesians.” Imagine if the situation was reversed and boats were coming illegally from Australia to Indonesia. I don’t imagine the Indonesians would be too worried about upsetting us. Well, we have to be just as tough-minded in dealing with them as they would be on something like this in dealing with us. So, look that was something obviously that I was very proud of and I suppose I should say before I leave this topic, I can understand why people living in rather horrible countries would like to come to Australia.
00:18:53 Tony Abbott
And I can understand why they think that flying to Indonesia going to the South Coast of Java and paying 10,000 or 15,000 bucks to a people smuggler might be a good thing to do. If I was living in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq or Syria or somewhere like that, why wouldn’t I want to come to Australia? But Australian governments have a duty to the existing people of this country to keep our borders secure. If you haven’t got your borders secure, you haven’t got your country secure. You are on the road to losing your sovereignty. So, it’s not about being anti- the people who were on the boats. I can absolutely understand why they wanted to come. It’s about doing the right thing by the people of Australia.
00:19:46 Tony Abbott
Second thing I was very pleased to have been able to do was, managed to respond, I think strongly and suitably to the shooting down of MH 17 by Russian-backed rebels in July of 2014. This was an absolute atrocity. An absolute atrocity. As I said in the Parliament that morning, it was not a tragedy, it is a crime, a crime. And crime cannot go unacknowledged and as far as possible, it should never go unpunished.
00:20:27 Tony Abbott
We did our best to hold the Russian government to account. And by being very, very firm we got those Australians, we got their remains back. Back to their families. And I think it could easily have turned out even worse had we not been able to respond very strongly as an Australian government. I can remember sitting in the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, which sat very long and very regularly through that time. And a couple of times the officials were, how do we say, I think they were inclined to think there was nothing that could be done. I can remember saying, “So, if there were forty Americans dead in this plane, what would be happening now?”
00:20:27 Tony Abbott
One of them said, “Well, the 82nd Airborne would be on its way.” And, I said “Well, OK, we haven’t quite got the 82nd Airborne, but we can’t just accept that that this has happened and there’s nothing that we can do.” Because if you do accept that there’s nothing that can be done, you are essentially saying to bullies “Well, the field is yours.” And no self-respecting country can allow that to be the case.
00:22:07 Tony Peloso
So very powerful. Thank you. So, I’m going to pass to Catherine. I do you just want to say, my father emigrated from Italy after World War Two and he thought he’d won the lottery every single day. So, I’ll thank you for those kind…
00:22:22 Tony Abbott
And I’m sure he’s very proud of you as well, Tony.
00:22:25 Tony Peloso
00:22:26 Catherine Batch
So, we might just sort of shift. We’ve got some questions from the PSMP group, and one of them was, it was quite connected to your last comment, so in times of crisis, wow should policymakers go about decision making to ensure that citizens are supported and the Commonwealth is preserved? And, I think that’s quite connected to the example we’ve had with the US obviously deploying action as result. I mean, how would you comment to that question?
00:22:49 Tony Abbott
Well, the first thing you’ve got to do is you have got to size up the situation as best you can. And having made the best assessment you can of the peril, having considered as best you can, the upsides and downsides of any action, you’ve gotta do what you think is best at that time.
00:23:20 Tony Abbott
But one thing you’ve always gotta do is, with an unfolding situation, is respond intelligently to things as they develop. And let’s just take the pandemic for instance. Now, when we had the reports out of China in late January, early February of something really, really catastrophic happening in Wuhan, and then come the beginning of March and we started to get the footage out of northern Italy of hospitals in meltdown and bodies in corridors, and so on. I think it was understandable and reasonable for governments to lock down. I think it was all understandable and reasonable.
00:24:13 Tony Abbott
I think it was also fairly obvious by early April that this wasn’t the Black Death. It probably wasn’t even the Spanish Flu. And my own judgment was that a few weeks of lockdown would have been necessary in order for us to get our hospitals prepared, in order to get our quarantining systems perfected, in order to sort out testing, tracing and isolating systems. And I think at that point we should have, with, you know, taking the public into your confidence, I mean telling the public what you’re thinking. Outlining the problem as you see it, outlining the threat as you see it, both to lives and to livelihoods, and then explaining why you were doing things. I think we should have taken a rather more liberal approach than then we did.
00:25:21 Tony Abbott
It’s interesting, if you go back to the expert recommendations of dealing with pandemics prior to this actual outbreak, lockdowns and border closures played almost no part in it. And I wonder if the thing had first become apparent anywhere other than Wuhan, in a highly autocratic, indeed totalitarian country, if we would have adopted lockdowns quite as swiftly and quite as comprehensively as we did.
00:26:07 Tony Peloso
So, Mr Abbott, the roles of many of our global public policy organisations are being questioned and reframed. Would you care to comment on this, and in particular are there any organisations or frameworks that you’d like to focus on?
00:26:25 Tony Abbott
Look, I’m generally in favour of international bodies, because all of the international bodies were essentially set up in the aftermath of World War Two. And they reflect the ethos, the Anglo-American ethos, the, I suppose, liberal mindset which inspired the principal victors of that horrible cataclysm. So we are still in this sense, living in a post-war world.
00:27:06 Tony Abbott
Now, global bodies, which back then might have had 20 or 30 members, now have almost 200 members. And quite a few of the members don’t share that liberal pluralist, democratic mindset which animated the Anglo-American victors of the Second World War. Nevertheless, I think it’s important that countries like Australia participate very vigorously in these organisations to defend and protect and where necessary and where possible extend that liberal pluralist, democratic mindset.
00:27:45 Tony Abbott
But we’ve always got to do it on the basis of a very clear conception of our values and dare I say it, our own national interest. I’m not in favour of going into these global bodies seeking soggy compromises. I’m in favour of going to these bodies, trying to build coalitions for good values and good outcomes. That’s what I’m in favour of now.
00:28:11 Tony Abbott
I think that Australia was obviously extremely successful, going into the World Health Organization recently, with a proposal for an independent, thorough investigation into the origins of the pandemic.
00:28:28 Tony Abbott
Self-evidently sensible. In the end, even the Chinese thought they couldn’t oppose it. Although they’ve been taking it out on us ever since, so look, we need to make the most of the global bodies, but we need to do so from a position of confidence, not from a position of “Oh look, you know, we just want to go with the flow and whatever you guys think is a good idea, will fit in with.”
00:28:58 Tony Peloso
Well, this question follows perfectly on from that. So, what is Australia’s role going forward in terms of shaping global thinking? And what do you think should be Australia’s key initiative on the global stage?
00:29:13 Tony Abbott
OK, that’s a very fair point and I dare say I’m expected to say doing more on climate change or something like that.
00:29:25 Tony Abbott
Look, I think we do best on the global stage when we come to a particular issue or a particular entity with some standing and interestingly, Australia is the country which has best managed a wave of illegal, would-be migration by sea.
00:29:54 Tony Abbott
Other countries are still wrestling with this. The Europeans obviously have still got a huge problem with boats coming across the Mediterranean. The British now have a huge problem with rubber duckies going across the English Channel. So I think that’s an issue that we can speak with some authority on, some credibility on, and look, the fundamental point is that no one country is obliged to be a lifeboat for the world. Every country has a right, and I would argue a duty to keep its character, and uncontrolled immigration, notwithstanding the fact that the would-be migrants claimed to be asylum seekers, as I’ve said often enough and yes, copped some criticism for it, amounts to a peaceful invasion if it happens in sufficient numbers and once it starts, these things tend to grow and grow and grow.
00:31:05 Tony Abbott
So I think making it crystal clear in all world bodies, that sovereign governments have a right to control their own borders, sovereign governments are under no obligation to accept everyone who wants to come. There is a world of difference between people who cross the border to escape dreadful persecution, and people having crossed one border in order to be safe, then decide they’d rather be prosperous and cross several more borders. And once they’ve crossed another border beyond the point of first refuge, they cease to be refugees in any meaningful sense and they become would be economic migrants. And countries have no obligation to accept people under those circumstances.
00:31:55 Tony Peloso
I’m going to throw you a couple of, let’s call them lovely soft-ball questions.
00:32:00 Tony Abbott
Oh, dear. They’re the hardest. A lot of great batsmen get out to full tosses, don’t they?
00:32:09 Tony Peloso
That’s a great point. So, we’re in the business of education. And I didn’t read out that you are also a Rhodes Scholar. So, firstly I’m curious about the impact that education had on you. And the second thing is, someone on our panel has said to you, “Where do you find the energy to do all the things you have accomplished?” So combine those two in any way that you wish.
00:32:54 Tony Abbott
Well, look, I was incredibly lucky to get the chance to go to Oxford. And I learned some wonderful lessons for life there. I confess that I didn’t take my studies as seriously as I should have when I was at Sydney University. You know, I was so pleased to get out of school and get to university. I was sick of being at school. I wanted to be a kind of adult, and you can be a kind of adult at university.
00:33:08 Tony Abbott
And the last thing I wanted to do was sit in lectures and be hosed down with stuff which you could very easily just get out of the textbook at your own time, and in your own way. So, I spent most of my time at Sydney University playing rugby, socialising, getting involved in student politics. I’ve gotta say that big lecture format was not very conducive to a deep intellectual engagement.
00:33:40 Tony Abbott
That started to change in my final year at Sydney University when I was lucky enough Professor Alice Tay, the late, great Professor Alice Tay, as my jurisprudence professor. And, that course was mostly taught in small tutorials, and that made a huge difference, and I think I did finally start to grasp what a university education was all about. Then I was lucky enough to go to Oxford. Initially I would read everything the tutor told me to read, and I would put together these pathetic essays that were just collages of quotations. And, apart from the fact that I sensed that this wasn’t really what was expected of me, the dismay of my tutors was palpable. And at some point, after a couple of months the penny dropped that I was supposed to read these bloody things, assimilate them, and then address the topic in my own way and in my own words. And once I discovered that, I so enjoyed my time at university.
00:34:48 Tony Abbott
And it was wonderful preparation for everything I’ve done subsequently as a journalist, as an advocate, as a member of Parliament. Look at the facts, get the opinions assimilated as far as you can, then make of it what you will. Come to your own conclusions. Make your own decisions and then go for it.
00:35:15 Tony Abbott
Now, as for all these extracurricular things. Well, you know, I can remember, I joined the local fire brigade because we live on the bush and I didn’t think that I could realistically ask other people to defend my neighbourhood if I wasn’t prepared to do my own bit for it as well. And, I can remember after my first fire call, it so happened I was doing my first duty crew with the Davidson Brigade on a Sunday. We got a fire call. We probably only get, you know, 40 calls a year, so it was quite a, I suppose, serendipitous, if you like, that we got a fire call on this day.
00:36:04 Tony Abbott
Funnily enough, my first Cabinet meeting was the following day. I’d just been promoted to Cabinet. And the skipper turned around to me and he said, “So, all you guys right for an overnight deployment?”
00:36:18 Tony Abbott
I thought to myself geez, that means I’m gonna be late for the Cabinet meeting the next day. What do I do? And I thought, well if I say “Sorry fellas, I’ve got a Cabinet meeting to go to next day”, these guys will never take me seriously again. So, I took a few deep breaths, rang my office and said “You’re going to have to put an apology for me to that meeting.” I got there about midday, smelling like a barbeque, and one of my colleagues said to me, “What kept you?” and I said “Oh, I got a call out with the local brigade.”
00:36:48 Tony Abbott
And the colleague said, “Oh, Tony. You’re a Cabinet minister now.”
00:36:52 Tony Abbott
And, you know, occasionally the words come to you. Often they don’t, but they did on this occasion. I said, “Well, you know, you’ve got to be a human being before you can be a Cabinet minister.”
00:37:04 Tony Abbott
Now, I see these “extracurricular things” as part of being a human being living in my part of Sydney.
00:37:22 Kate Joyner
Thanks for joining us for this episode of QUT ExecInsights.