Tony Abbott interview: Australia’s prime minister discusses China, climate change, and the Labor government.

Australia’s Tony Abbott: “Welcome to the Wonderful, Wacko World of the Former Government”

Australia’s Tony Abbott: “Welcome to the Wonderful, Wacko World of the Former Government”

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 24 2013 11:23 PM

“Welcome to the Wonderful, Wacko World of the Former Government”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott takes a swing at his predecessors.

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L.W.: So how will you get needed revenue?

T.A.: If you get taxes and regulations down, you will get creativity up, and ultimately that means more growth and more revenues. The best way to get growth is to have a smaller, more effective government. We are doing our best to get government spending down.

L.W.: You have said you will try to raise defense spending?


T.A.: Our objective, as soon as the budget is stronger, is to increase defense spending until we get it up to 2 percent of GDP.

L.W.: You've taken a tough stance against the so-called boat people trying to get into Australia.

T.A.: This is a massive illegal immigration racket, which the former government summoned into existence by changing policies that had been put in place.

L.W.: How did they change the policies?

T.A.: They abolished offshore processing of illegal boat arrivals, and they abolished the temporary-protection visas that illegal boat arrivals were placed on. Their changes meant that if you got here, you could stay here. Traffic, which had been stopped, started up again. ... A trickle became a flow, and a flow became a flood. In July of this year, we had illegal arrivals by boat at an annual rate of 50,000, which is a massive influx. Now the numbers have slowed dramatically, particularly since the election.

L.W.: Is it that Australia can't support a bigger population?

T.A.: Of course we can support a bigger population, but people have to come in the front door, not the back door.

L.W.: If you look at the foreign investment in Australia, the U.S. is No. 1.

T.A.: Yes, total U.S. investment in Australia is over $600 billion. Chinese investment is not much over $20 billion.

L.W.: Hasn't there been controversy about Chinese investment in Australian mines and companies that control strategic assets?

T.A.: There was a Chinese bid to take over a controlling interest in Rio [Tinto, a leading Australian iron ore producer], and that was controversial, and in the end, the Rio board decided they didn't want to sell.

L.W.: Should there be limits on Chinese ownership of key assets?

T.A.: We would never propose singling out a particular country for special treatment.

L.W.: You lost the auto sector last year when Ford announced it was moving out.

T.A.: We haven't lost the auto sector. It has struggled in Australia, particularly in recent years. ... Partly that was because of poor policies put in place by the former government, which [imposed] additional red tape and industrial regulation and made businesses less competitive. Ford announced that it is pulling out as of 2016, but we are very hopeful that we will keep Toyota. We would like to see an ongoing motor industry in this country.

L.W.: That is part of diversifying the economy?

T.A.: We are not in the business of being prescriptive to businesspeople. Governments that go around picking winners usually end up spending a lot of money for no good purpose. If we can get taxes and regulation down and provide an environment that is stable and predictable and benign, we are confident the creativity of Australian entrepreneurs and the excellence of our workers will do the rest.

L.W.: Since you want to abolish the carbon tax—does that mean you are skeptical about climate change?

T.A.: I'm not one of those people who runs around and says every time there's a fire or a flood, that proves climate change is getting worse. Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We've had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we've recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic global warming.

L.W.: So do you believe in climate change or are you skeptical?

T.A.: This argument has become far too theological for anyone's good. I accept that climate change is a reality. And I support policies that will be effective in reducing emissions, but I do think there is too much climate-change alarmism.

L.W.: What is your most challenging issue right now?

T.A.: Swiftly implementing our election commitments, which were to scrap the carbon tax and the mining tax and get the budget back under control, [get on] a credible path to a strong and sustainable surplus. We've got to stop the boats, because this is an issue of sovereignty for us. And of course we've got to get cracking and build the infrastructure and the roads of the 21st century. We're 50 days after the election on Sunday—I think we have made a good start.

L.W.: What have you actually accomplished?

T.A.: The flow of boats is significantly reduced. We have drafted legislation to repeal the carbon and mining tax. We've just announced a commission to review the size and efficiency of the government on an agency-by-agency basis. We've taken control of the national broadband network, and we will deliver faster broadband much more quickly and less expensively than would have been the case under Labor.

L.W.: Labor wanted a national broadband network?

T.A.: It's a government-owned telecommunications infrastructure monopoly, which was proceeding at a scandalous rate without producing any commensurate outcomes. We are changing the objective from fiber to every premise in the country to fiber to distribution points, and then we will use the existing infrastructure to take the broadband to individual premises.

L.W.: Is that cheaper and more efficient?

T.A.: Vastly.

L.W.: But Labor wanted to extend fiber to every household?

T.A.: Welcome to the wonderful, wacko world of the former government.

L.W.: So you believe the former government was doing a lot of things that were bad for the country?

T.A.: I thought it was the most incompetent and untrustworthy government in modern Australian history.

L.W.: Be more specific.

T.A.: They made a whole lot of commitments, which they scandalously failed to honor. They did a lot of things that were scandalously wasteful, and the actual conduct of government was a circus. They were untrustworthy in terms of the carbon tax. They were incompetent in terms of the national broadband network. They were a scandal when it came to their own internal disunity. They made a whole lot of grubby deals in order to try and perpetuate themselves in power. It was an embarrassing spectacle, and I think Australians are relieved they are gone.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.