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.
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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.
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 averted 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?
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 break-up 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.
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