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Abbott’s UK gig calls for diplomacy and respect for experts. Have they met him?
Abbott’s UK gig calls for diplomacy and respect for experts. Have they met him? avatar

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You cannot say he does not live his creed of personal freedom – the rest of the Australian population is grounded, but Tony Abbott got special exemption to leave the country, and has alighted in the UK, where he has now been appointed as that country's new trade adviser, seeking out post-Brexit trade opportunities.

It is certainly a courageous decision, in the best Yes Minister tradition.

Illustration: Reg LynchCredit:

The former prime minister's Oxford Blue for boxing has become the founding legend of his political narrative, and not for nothing. Peace is not something that descends easily on him. He doesn't court controversy so much as he body-smashes it. Shirt-fronts, even.

Abbott applied his skills for contact sport almost immediately on arrival. He gave a speech this week in London, to the Policy Exchange think tank, where he appeared to apply a cost-benefit analysis to the lives of elderly people most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

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Abbott conceded it was a "bad time" for anyone with the virus, but it was also "a bad time for anyone who would rather not be dictated to by officials, however well meaning".

"In this climate of fear, it was hard for governments to ask, 'How much is a life worth?' because every life is precious and every death is sad," he said.

"But that's never stopped families sometimes electing to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course."

Most governments so far have approached the pandemic like trauma doctors, he said, rather than "thinking like health economists trained to pose uncomfortable questions about the level of deaths we might have to live with".

As pointed out by the ABC's Annabel Crabb this week, Abbott's sanguine attitude to elderly deaths is a newly acquired one. In 2017, when Dan Andrews' Labor government had just passed a euthanasia bill in the Victorian lower house, the famously pro-life Abbott called it a "sad milestone in our decline as a decent society".

Tony Abbott speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London.

Tony Abbott speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London.

"It marks our descent into a country which regards human beings as disposable, and we don't want anyone ever to be regarded as useless, worthless or disposable."

Back in London, Abbott's critics failed to see the merits of an actuarial approach to COVID deaths. They reached into the bank of previous Abbott controversies – a genre so expansive it surely deserves its own Latin name by now – and reheated some old favourites.

Historical Abbottian quotes on homosexuality, climate change and the biological function of women were trotted out. (I am curious to know if any British TV stations have yet aired the famous footage of him taking a bite out of an onion. Also, does the UK export onions? There could be a synergy there.)

Tory politicians defended the mooted appointment, although not always well.

"We need to have the best experts in the world, working in their field, and as the former prime minister of Australia, obviously Mr Abbott has got a huge amount of experience," said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

"Even if he's a homophobic misogynist?" Sky News journalist Kay Burley asked, somewhat bluntly.

"Well I, er … I don’t think that is, ahh, true," Hancock replied.

His interrogator pushed on: "He's a homophobe and a misogynist."

Hancock stopped trying. "Well he’s also an expert in trade," he said.

As prime minister, Abbott did sign free trade agreements with three major economic partners – Japan, South Korea, and China.

In any case, Abbott will be an adviser to the trade negotiations. He will not have to do the nitty-gritty. To borrow a Scott Morrisonism, he will not be holding the hose.

What remains to be seen is how he will interact with the army of specialists and experts who actually do negotiate the deals. In his speech this week, he railed against the "unaccountable experts" who order lockdowns and other measures which destroy the economy and people's wellbeing.

In the compelling extract from her new book on Australia’s climate wars, The Carbon Club, journalist Marian Wilkinson reminds us of Abbott’s disdain for the expertise of the public service of which he took command when elected in a landslide in 2013.

Within 24 hours of the Abbott government being sworn in, it sacked the head of the Climate Commission, Tim Flannery. Other commission members were also sacked and the website was taken down. Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson was told he didn’t have the confidence of the new government.

"No incoming government had ever removed a Treasury secretary as far as anyone could remember," Wilkinson writes.

So much for the conservative ideal of valuing institutions. Also jettisoned were certain democratic conventions.

While still opposition leader, Abbott wrote to Clean Energy Finance Corporation chair Jillian Broadbent, asking her to not assess or make any further approvals to clean energy projects before the election. He planned to disband the CEFC on winning government. But as its chief executive, Oliver Yates, pointed out, as a statutory officer his authority derived from Parliament, not from politicians who hadn’t yet been elected to govern.

Through no fault of our own, Australia now has a crowded field of former prime ministers still knocking about, looking for gigs. Still, even in this climate, it seems strange to take a job which will involve negotiating a deal with the country you used to lead, instead of on its behalf. Abbott coined the term "Team Australia" and yet he is forever talking about his love for Britannia, and conferring honours on baffled old British royals.

It is stranger still that someone with an aversion to diplomacy and expertise should be given a job that requires a goodly dose of both.

Twitter@JacquelineMaley

Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards

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