The Leader of the Opposition graciously granted an audience to some life-long Liberal voters: three gentlemen and two ladies. They asked to see him because they felt concerned about some of his policies and needed clarification; they also wanted reassurance about some of his actions and a better understanding of his strategy for the next election.
This is what they said to each other on a recent cold, but sunny Canberra day:
Concerned Liberal 1: We’d like to thank you Mr Abbott for making your valuable time available to us. You know, we’ve always voted Liberal and were great fans of Mr Howard; in fact we wish he were still PM. We know you were close to him, and so I imagine you feel the same. We know too how much he depended on you when he needed to rough up a Labor shadow minister – you were very good at savaging anyone who disagreed with Mr Howard. And we see you haven’t lost any of your bite since you took over as Leader.
We hope that there’ll soon be an election to get rid of that awful Julia Gillard and her incompetent bunch of ministers. Really, they can’t get anything right. There are a lot of Liberal voters in our electorates that want to arm themselves, so that whenever the election is held, they will have all the answers. They intend to organize meetings to urge a vote for the Coalition.
Mr Abbott: It’s very good you’re organizing some meetings, but have you ever thought of a rally? We’ve had some beauties with lots of placards and angry people; you know – genuine honest-to-God Aussies – protesting against Ju-liar - what a great label Jonesy thought up.
Concerned Liberal 2: Well, we really had in mind something less rowdy; you know most of us come from electorates in the eastern suburbs of Sydney – I’m from Mr Turnbull’s – and we feel something dignified would be more suitable.
Mr Abbott: OK… but remember rallies get on the TV. The journos are hungry for that sort of news – lots of colour, movement, and hopping mad voters baying for blood – terrific on the 6 o’clock news.
Concerned Liberal 3: I realize that rallies give you a great boost, and you find them exhilarating, but we feel the folks in our electorates would prefer a quieter discussion that will help them understand your policies better. You know they’re a thoughtful lot, not easily lead by the nose.
Mr Abbott: OK, if you want a debate, that’s your choice, but I prefer not to get into too much detail. It just confuses people. I like simple slogans like the ones we used last time – you remember them? Just three words that everyone learnt by heart.
Concerned Liberal 1: I know that’s your preference Mr Abbott, but our folk ask questions and don’t find slogans helpful in answering them. We can’t front them with just a few short slogans. They ask questions that we can’t answer; that’s why we wanted to see you to get the good oil, so to speak.
Mr Abbott: OK, have it your way, but you know I’m not a policy wonk, so I might not have all the answers at my fingertips. Shoot!
Concerned Liberal 1: As the carbon tax debate has started in Parliament, can we start there? There seems to be a lot of confusion about your Direct Action Plan.
Mr Abbott: I don’t know what’s confusing; it’s all laid out, fully costed - $3.2 billion over the forward estimates, and capped!
Concerned Liberal 2: Yes, we heard you saying that, but can we go back to the basics. As we understand it, you have the same mitigation target as Labor – 5% by 2020 – but you plan to reach it by planting lots of trees and burying carbon in the soil. We know trees are carbon sinks so that’s a good move, but we wondered how you plan to plant enough of them to do the job.
According to Tony Windsor it would require something like 28 million hectares of trees to be planted to soak up the five per cent that you have as a target, and we have only 26 million hectares of food-producing arable land.
Mr Abbott: But, but, but…
Concerned Liberal 2: May I finish please. According to the Australia Institute, to reach your 5% target it would be necessary to reduce emissions by 160 million tonnes of CO2 by 2020, which would require planting trees over an area of 265,600 square kilometres, which is more than the size of Victoria if that was your only action, but even the 15 million tonnes reduction you plan from planting trees would require an area of 25,000 square kilometres and over 9,000 gigalitres of water every year, two and a half times the amount of water proposed to be bought back by the Murray Darling Basin Plan. How would you achieve that?
Mr Abbott: Well you seem to be a full bottle. As I said, I’m not a policy wonk; I’m sure Greg Hunt can answer your questions. It’s all been worked out. And by the way, don’t believe everything Tony Windsor says – remember he’s a renegade.
Concerned Liberal 2: Does that mean you can’t explain how you will find enough suitable land to plant the trees and enough water to grow them?
Mr Abbott: Well, well, I can’t tell you that off the top of my head, but it’s all been worked out. You’ll have to speak with Greg.
Concerned Liberal 3: We had hoped you would be able to fill us in, but can you tell us who will plant the trees – it’s an awful lot of trees, and where will you find land to plant them that’s not in use for growing food?
Mr Abbott: My Green Army will do that – 15,000 workers.
Concerned Liberal 3: The Green Army sounds impressive, but where will you get the 15,000? We seem to have a shortage of workers at present and with unemployment around 5% won’t it be difficult to find enough to plant those millions of trees?
Mr Abbott: We’ll call for volunteers – you know youngsters that want to get out into the wide-open spaces.
Concerned Liberal 2: But if you can’t get them… And how much will they cost? And how do you disperse them around the country, and house and feed them?
Mr Abbott: Don’t you worry about that – just tell your people it’s all been worked out; it’s all under control. It will work.
Concerned Liberal 4: OK Mr Abbott, we’ll just have to take your word for it. But could you tell us about this soil carbon – we hear that there will need to be lots of processing plants built to produce the char for plowing into the soil. We’ve been told it’s a good idea, but we wondered how many farmers might take it up and how char would be produced in sufficient quantities.
Mr Abbott: Now you’re getting a bit technical; I’m not a tech-head you know. You’d better ask Greg. Anyway tell your people it’s all been worked out. Our full Direct Action Plan will be out well before the election, like all our other policies.
Concerned Liberal 4: We have read it already Mr Abbott, but our people still have a lot of queries; we still don’t understand how you are going to make it work.
Concerned Liberal 2: If I could ask another question Mr Abbott: you say that the cost is $3.2 billion over four years, but my member, Mr Turnbull, wrote on his blog that meeting your 80 per cent cut by 2050 with the Direct Action Plan would place an annual cost of $18 billion on the budget. That’s a lot of money.
Mr Abbott: Well of course Mr Turnbull has his own ideas – after all he wanted to go along with Rudd’s CPRS – so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
Concerned Liberal 2: But he’s my member, and I do go along with his ideas. He’s pretty smart - what if he’s right – won’t you be up for a lot of money? He seems to think your Direct Action Plan was designed so it could easily be abandoned. We know you’ve got your doubts about climate change – it being absolute crap as you said – so is he right?
Mr Abbott: Look, I’m not going to jeopardize industry just to placate those scaremongers who want something done about climate change. Why should we lead the world when we cause so little pollution?
Concerned Liberal 5: But Mr Abbott we are the highest polluters per person in the world – don’t you think we should pull our weight and behave like a good global citizen?
Mr Abbott: Look, we can’t make much difference so I’m not going to upset business and industry by pushing too hard. They don’t want a carbon tax, and as I said in Parliament last week, for Julia Gillard the carbon tax is ‘the longest political suicide note in Australian history’. I’m not going to commit suicide; in fact the carbon tax will win me the next election.
Concerned Liberal 5: But industry and commerce are asking for certainty and although they would prefer not to pay tax, they find uncertainty unsettling.
Mr Abbott: I’ll give them certainty – I’ll rescind the tax when I get in come 2013.
Concerned Liberal 5: Mr Abbott, I read last week that the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network that represents a swag of mining and manufacturing industries, said it agreed with Treasury that your Direct Action Plan of achieving 5 per cent emission reductions without buying permits overseas, which you said you won’t allow, would at least double the cost to them.
Mr Abbott: Well they’re wrong. As I said, we will spend only $3.2 billion over four years and it’s capped, and we won’t allow international permits.
Concerned Liberal 5: They’re businessmen and seem pretty sure of themselves. Don’t you think it would be a pity to get them offside?
Mr Abbott: Look, we’ve done the sums…
Concerned Liberal 5: Because you won’t allow international permits Treasury is saying it will cost every household $1300 a year more for your Direct Action Plan. It was going to be over $700 anyway, but without those permits it will double. People will not be too happy about that. How should we explain that to our folk?
Mr Abbott: I don’t agree with those figures. Look, just tell them it’s all been worked out. Tell them to read the document – it’s all there.
Concerned Liberal 3: Mr Abbott, in your Plan you intend to use taxpayer’s money to pay the polluters to encourage them to reduce their emissions. Why is that, and what if they don’t?
Mr Abbott: We reckon if we offer them enough money they will voluntarily reduce emissions. If they don’t they will lose the money. Businesses love money so they’ll comply.
Concerned Liberal 3: But if they don’t reduce pollution, because they reckon it’s not worth their while, how will you meet your targets?
Mr Abbott: Don’t you worry about that – they will come on board.
Concerned Liberal 3: Mr Abbott, I thought you were a free marketeer who believes the market always knows best – wouldn’t a market based scheme that sets a price on carbon work better – just about every economist thinks so, and almost none favour your Direct Action Plan.
Mr Abbott: I don’t think much of economists; they’re a pretty unreliable bunch. Anyway, we not going with a market based scheme – Gillard and the Greens are, so we won’t, and Malcolm Turnbull wanted that and the party chucked him out of office for it.
Concerned Liberal 5: Mr Abbott, can I ask you one more thing: you said if the Gillard Government passed the carbon bills, you will rescind them in Government. How will you do that? The Government says that the money it raises with its carbon tax will be paid to pensioners and nine out of ten households to cover the increased cost of electricity and household items that result from the carbon tax – how will you claw back what’s already being paid out, and paid for over a year? We reckon Liberal voters will be angry at having money taken off them, and pensioners will scream blue murder.
Mr Abbott: Well if there’s no tax on them, they don’t need the compensation…
Concerned Liberal 5: But Mr Abbott they are never going to pay the tax, the polluters are. It’s the ordinary folk who will be getting a cash benefit and won’t want to have it taken from them.
Mr Abbott: Well, we’ll just have to explain that to them – no tax, no compensation…
Concerned Liberal 5: That might sound logical Mr Abbott, but I wouldn’t like the job of selling it, I wouldn’t like to tell pensioners that their pension will be going down…
Mr Abbott: You’ll have to leave that to me – don’t you worry about that…
Concerned Liberal 3: Mr Abbott, I don’t think we’re going to get any further on this subject – I’m not sure I understand any better how I’m going to persuade my people that your Direct Action Plan is the goods – I’ve read the policy document from beginning to end – I guess I’ll have to read it again, and get in touch with Greg Hunt to fill in the gaps.
And by the way, the people I talk to are worried about global warming and want serious action taken now; quite a lot are ‘doctors’ wives’ you know – I’m not sure that I’ll be able to reassure them that you feel the same. I had hoped you might have reassured me. Never mind.
Concerned Liberal 1: Mr Abbott, before we leave the carbon tax, you say that you will rescind it in government, but with the Greens having the balance of power in the Senate, how will you get them to vote to rescind it? They are the ones so strongly in favour of the tax; in fact I reckon they would have liked a higher price on carbon.
Mr Abbott: Look, there are ways and means. When they see the people have voted us in, and I’ll make sure the election is a referendum on this toxic tax, how could they obstruct us doing what the people want – which is to get rid of the tax?
Concerned Liberal 1: Well I wonder can you rely on that! The Greens are convinced that global warming is a serious threat and that the tax and the ETS are vital to counteract it. So why would they let you rescind it?
Mr Abbott: Well if they get obstreperous, I’ll threaten them with a double dissolution that will wipe them out.
Concerned Liberal 1: I reckon they might call your bluff.
Mr Abbott: We’ll see…
Concerned Liberal 1: Anyway, all this will take ages and by then don’t you think the voters might have realized that the carbon tax is not killing them like you said? And if the tax hasn’t upset them much, and they’re happily living with it, they might not be too enthusiastic for another election, and it might not go your way. Don’t you think that’s a risk?
Mr Abbott: No. We’re going to win this one. The tax must go and I’ll make sure it does while there is still energy left in my body.
Now is there anything else?
Concerned Liberal 3: Sorry Mr Abbott, we’ve taken a lot of your time and we haven’t got beyond the carbon tax. Can we spend what time we’ve got left talking about your asylum seeker policy?
Mr Abbott: Sure, we’ve got that taped – we’ll just go back to processing on Nauru, temporary protection visas and towing back boats when it’s safe.
Concerned Liberal 3: That sounds pretty simple, but I’ve got a few questions.
First, I thought that towing boats back was out of order – where would you tow them to now that Indonesia says it won’t take them back. And if there was another tragedy, that wouldn’t look good.
Mr Abbott. We’ll work that out at the time, and we’ll tow them only if it’s safe.
Concerned Liberal 3: But what if they set fire to their boats?
Mr Abbott: We’ll work that out at the time; anything else?
Concerned Liberal 2: Are you sure the Nauru plan will work second time around? It seems that there are an awful lot of people out there that want to come here.
Mr Abbott: If it worked for John Howard, it will work for me.
Concerned Liberal 3: I’m glad you’re so confident. But what about the High Court ruling? The constitutional QCs seem to think it knocks out Nauru as much as Malaysia, in fact all offshore processing. So there will need to be a change to the migration laws to allow any offshore processing at all.
Mr Abbott: I disagree; our lawyers, George Brandis and Co, say Nauru will be OK.
Concerned Liberal 3: But if you try Nauru again, don’t you think the refugee lawyers will mount another challenge, like they did for the Malaysia swap?
Mr Abbott: They might try, but Brandis says we’ll be OK.
Concerned Liberal 3: But if Mr Brandis is wrong, you’ll need a change to the migration laws, just like Gillard needs. And if you knock her back now and refuse to back her changes, ones that will give any government the go ahead for offshore processing, will she be likely to back you?
Mr Abbott: Well, I’ll worry about that when the time comes. But I’m determined not to help Gillard get her Malaysia swap deal through – it’s bad policy, and what’s more it will sink her. There will be lots more boats arriving and the detention facilities will collapse under the strain. It’s a winner for me, and another nail in her coffin.
Concerned Liberal 4: But Mr Abbott, if she plays her cards well, might she not blame you for all the new arrivals. Won’t she argue that the boats would have stopped if you had let her Malaysia swap deal through, and that every new boat is your fault? As each one arrives I can hear her saying: ‘Thank you Mr Abbott – now we have another batch to process because you blocked the migration law changes’. It could turn people against you, you know those people who hate these boat people. It would be a pity that in trying to wedge Gillard, she managed to wedge you!
Mr Abbott: But, but, but… well, I’m so high in the polls, I suppose I can afford to lose some skin…anyway I’m not going to help that bitc…
Concerned Liberal 1: I guess you’ll just say No – again!
Mr Abbott, we’ve taken such a lot of your time, and I see you looking at your watch, so I guess we had better let you get on with your busy schedule. You’ve been very generous with your time.
We had quite a lot of other questions our people wanted answered: about whether you’re going to look at WorkChoices again; how you intend to demolish the NBN when its half built and how you will cope with those who miss out; how you’re going to rescind the minerals tax; how you’re going to find the $70 billion of savings you promised to return the budget to a surplus; how you’re going to run your Green Army after you’ve disbanded the climate change department; what you’re intending to do in the health field; and whether you’re going ahead with your own PPL scheme. There were other things too, but we’re out of time.
Mr Abbott: I’m glad you’ve got the answers you were looking for.
Concerned Liberal 2: I guess we’ll need to think about what you’ve told us and distill it for our people. I can see we’ll have to tell them that the things we talked about have all been worked out and that they have to take you at your word that all will be explained well before the election. They were a bit unnerved when you told Kerry O’Brien in that nasty interview on the 7.30 Report that not everything you say is absolutely correct, but we’ll tell them that you were very sure of yourself and that they need to trust you.
If they have more questions, can we come again some time?
Mr Abbott: Sure, sure, do come again!!!
Concerned Liberal 1: Thank you so much Mr Abbott.
Concerned Liberal 1 to the rest outside: Well there it is!!!!! Are you any the wiser? Don’t tell me we’re going to see another round of those mindless three-word slogans. Oh dear! We’d better get our thinking caps on before we front our people.
Concerned Liberal 3: Should we get in touch with Greg Hunt?
Concerned Liberal 4: And get nothing but gobbledygook? Have you ever heard him talk?
Concerned Liberal 5: Gibberish, I’d call it…
Concerned Liberal 2: Why don’t we talk to Malcolm Turnbull; I could arrange a meeting. At least he makes sense! Why did they ever ditch him?