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Shadow Minister Tony Abbott speaks to Peter Switzer

In the face of the Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) highly-choreographed 45th ALP National Conference, Shadow Minister Tony Abbott is stirring the pot on the promotional rounds for his new book, Battlelines.

While some of Abbott’s policy ideas will be met with resistance, like raising the pension age to 70, he is unapologetic for any ruckus caused.

On Peter Switzer’s program, SWITZER, on Sky News Business Channel, Abbott reveals why he hopes Kevin Rudd is right, why he would never say ‘never’ to a shot at the leadership, and what the future holds for Australian politics.

Into battle

Political tomes are not without controversy, and Battlelines is no different.

“When you are writing a book, you have a licence to speak a bit more freely than what have might have otherwise been the case,” says Abbott.

Despite the policies proposed in Abbott’s book and Turnbull’s low approval rating in the polls, Abbott says all is well in the Liberal camp.

“I don’t think Malcolm is frightened of debate. Whatever faults Malcolm might have, he is a very intellectual bloke, he’s written several books himself, he’s a Rhodes scholar, he enjoys debate.”

Abbott says any difference of opinion is what gives the Liberal Party a point of difference in the current climate.

“Thank God we have debates inside our party. The ALP at its conference today looked like they’d had a real outbreak of conformism. Dull, choreographed conformism.”

Abbott says there is nothing wrong with debate, “because whatever policy ultimately emerges is likely to better policy for the debate”.

The lieutenant

While Abbott has nothing but praise for Turnbull, Switzer put it to Abbott – what would happen if Turnbull were to disappear, Harold Holt-style, off the coast of his beloved Bondi? Would he put his hand up for the leadership?

“You never say ‘never’ to anything in this business,” says Abbott. “But the point I’ve tried to make is that you ought to be ambitious for the higher things, not ambitious for the next promotion. Anyone who is so consumed with getting the next job that his focus is on that, is probably not going to do the job very well, if and when he gets it.”

For the foreseeable future, Abbott says his job is to be the best possible lieutenant he can be for Turnbull, and has no ill-wishes against his leader.

He points out that being a leader doesn’t mean nothing of significance has been achieved, describing former Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley as “one of the most impressive people never to become prime minister”.

“I think there are a lot of people who go through our parliament who deserve a lot more credit than they get,” says Abbott.

“There are a lot of really good people who don’t get to be prime minister and if in the fullness of time I’m one of those, that’s life, isn’t it?”

It’s the agenda, not the position, says Abbott, that matters most. Hence Battlelines: “I think it’s important that a politician who has been there as long I have sits down and says, ‘what are the really important things?’ John Howard was a successful prime minister in part because he always had an agenda. What we need to do now as a coalition is work out what our agenda is for the next government. This is my contribution.”

Among the items on his personal agenda are a universal family benefit, a higher pension age, increased salaries for teachers (“you could fund that by a hardly noticeable increase in class sizes”), a “decent” paid maternity leave scheme and further levies on business.

The opposition

So, in Abbott’s opinion, what does the not-so-distant future hold for the Australian people? While he admits economics and politics are two very different beasts, he remains cautiously optimistic.

“I don’t claim to study the ups and downs of markets, the ins and outs of economic debate,” says Abbott. “I hope that Kevin Rudd is right and that we have in fact escaped any major collateral damage from the Global Financial Crisis.”

He doubts, though, his opposition’s recession-proof rhetoric.

“I would be surprised if you could have stock market falls, production falls, trade falls of the magnitude that we have seen around the world over the last 12 months on par with the Great Depression and end up with the domestic recession milder than that of the early 90s.”

And, not surprisingly, he has qualms about their fiscal policies.

“My problem with the stimulus package is it seemed to be too much too soon,” says Abbott. “[Rudd’s] now spending borrowed money to give us an economic sugar hit and this just strikes me as being fundamentally unsustainable.

“If we do, in fact, avoid a recession then he will be hailed as an economic genius, but not even Kevin Rudd can change the fundamental laws of economics, and all of the money he’s borrowed will have to be repaid.”

Abbott reminds Switzer it’s never easy to be the first term government, saying it’s his party’s task is to criticise where they think the government is going wrong and to put forward their alternatives. The battlelines, it seems, are still being drawn.

Published on: Thursday, August 13, 2009

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