Tony Goes The Full Abbott


Tony Abbott's complicated relationship with the truth has been on the public record for a long time. Just over two years ago he admitted in an interview with Kerry O'Brien that "sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks".

His various gaffes, withdrawals and evasions are now so numerous they warrant compilation in a handy reference guide.

But in last night's 7:30 interview with Leigh Sales, the Opposition Leader went "full Abbott". Nobody should have been surprised, but as he bulldozed one question after another, the extent of the Liberal party's preference for "truth creation" became clear. This is what an Abbott Prime Ministership will look like — not a cobra strike on the truth, but a python squeeze.

Ben Eltham discusses the closure of BHP's Olympic Dam project elsewhere at New Matilda today, but here's an examination of how "loose with the truth" the Opposition leader got at a few key points of last night's interview.

LEIGH SALES: Why have you referred repeatedly to illegal asylum boats coming to Australia? Do you accept that that's illegal and that seeking asylum by any means is legal?

TONY ABBOTT: Most of the people who are coming to Australia by boat have passed through several countries on the way and if they simply wanted asylum they could have claimed that in any of the countries through which they'd passed. […] I think that people should come to Australia through the front door, not through the back door. If people want a migration outcome, they should go through the migration channels.

Despite being repeatedly pressed on the point. Abbott refused to acknowledge that it is legal to seek asylum in Australian — regardless of the means of arrival.

There is no orderly resettlement process for asylum seekers. The myth of the queue has been well and truly debunked. The UNHCR estimates there are 800,000 refugees at large in the world at any one time, and only 80,000 resettlement places offered under the standard refugee process.  As Jenny Haines wrote in NM this week, refugees want to come in the front door, but get desperate from waiting. A system of risk-based visa requirements also serves to arbitrarily exclude many refugees from the process altogether — stopping them from using the "migration channels" in the first place.

"If they were happy with temporary protection visas, then they might be able to argue better that they were asylum seekers…"

There's no evidence that "legitimate" refugees are better identified and processed under a Temporary Protection Visa scheme. In fact, the exact opposite is true; as Rimi Khan wrote in NM,  "the black and white world of Howard's [TPV] bureaucracy was unable and unwilling to accommodate any uncertainty", and excluded refugees whose situations were complex.

And anyway, TPVs were never meant to identify legitimate refugees. Rather they were designed, as Abbott told Sales, to stop "permanent residency". They failed in that regard too, encouraging asylum seekers to travel as a family, rather than sending one member ahead, because the TPV scheme did not allow husbands access to the family reunion program. It is unlikely that many refugees were deterred by TPVs.

"Well, I've told you that we will certainly address the flexibility problem, the militancy problem, the productivity problem and we'll do so in good time before the next election, Leigh."

As Ian McAuley noted recently, flexibility and productivity are hardly a problem for Australian business. "In fact," he wrote, "labour turnover (a measure of flexibility) has remained unchanged over the last 10 years, industrial disputes have continued their downward trend, and productivity is rising steeply."

On any measurement, union militancy is at a low ebb, ironically because of the government's Fair Work legislation, as Claire Pullen pointed out this week. In fact, most industrial action now takes place at the state level. Remove those from the picture, "and the number of strikes in the federal system wouldn't just continue its downward trend; it would fall off a cliff".

LEIGH SALES: Well when exactly because business, I'm sure, would like certainty. You spoke about BHP being worried about uncertainty earlier.

TONY ABBOTT: And I'm offering them the certainty of the abolition of the carbon tax, the certainty of the abolition of the mining tax. I want to see an end to sovereign risk questions over Australia.

Crikey's Bernard Keane roundly demolished the sovereign risk lie this time last year, identifying it as pure rentseeking by the Liberal party and business lobby:

"The data has comprehensively demolished the claim about sovereign risk. It was absurd last year when the share prices of Australian miners were outperforming those of foreign-based miners amid claims the RSPT would destroy the industry. It's even more demonstrably absurd now."

The miners are doing fine, but the one sector that could use some "certainty" is the renewables industry, who have been the real victims of politicking over the carbon price and MRRT.

TONY ABBOTT: I think the circumstances of her departure from a previous employer are of public interest, but in the end it's not whether she was an unethical lawyer that matters, it's the fact that this is an untrustworthy prime minister that counts, and that's the main game for us.

It's easy to tune out when Abbott starts to recite his talking points. Julia Gillard is a liar, we can stop the boats, the carbon tax is destroying the economy, people seeking asylum are illegals.

And no, there wasn't much that was new or unpredictable in Abbott's performance last night, but the departures from the truth were so numerous and so egregious that they warrant comment.

Leigh Sales' efforts to hold Abbott to account were admirable, but they didn't work. To hear the alternative Prime Minister hold out on the very simple question of whether or not it's legal to seek asylum was a grim portent of what's to come. It displayed a disdain for the truth, for Sales, and for voters.

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