November 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Tony Abbott apologises

By Don Watson

The prime minister is sorry about everything

Good evening. Tonight I want to speak to you about honesty. And dishonesty. On honesty good government depends. Dishonesty is the seed of bad government. It is a betrayal of the people, of democracy itself.

“And then a Plank in Reason, broke / And I dropped down, and down” – as the poet said.

Let me begin by saying that I came here tonight on a bicycle. My own bicycle: a Christmas present from an Indian philanthropist that I at once declared on the pecuniary interest register. The tyres were inflated by my chief of staff, on her own time. She also lent me the water bottle. I tell a lie … it was the one sent to me by the proprietor of an Indonesian abattoir and which I will declare when the pearl inlay has been valued.

This is the sort of honest and transparent government that I promised before the election and am determined to deliver – though I must say this obsession with travel entitlements distracts from the real business of governing, which is why I held the previous government so sternly to account on them.

As I said to the Malaysian prime minister and the Indonesian president last month, we play our politics very hard in Australia.

I acknowledged that in Opposition we said some pretty hard things about the treatment asylum seekers in Malaysia could expect under Labor’s policy proposal, but pointed out that it was the previous government we were talking about, not Malaysia itself or its people. I have since been told that this was not strictly true. Or even true at all. It seems we did say pretty emphatically that asylum seekers released into the Malaysian community would be treated “very, very harshly” by the Malaysian people, and Joe Hockey almost cried about it. I must have forgotten. Anyway, I spoke to Joe this morning and he has agreed to be more restrained in future.

What I can say in all honesty is that the Malaysian PM gave me no indication that he did not understand: he met my remarks with a little nod and an unflickering stare and, even though I grinned until I thought my ears were going to fall off, he did not smile back. My advisers tell me this is probably the Asian way and not to worry too much about it. Anyway, I felt better afterwards for having got it off my chest – and off the country’s chest, and I trust you feel better now as well.

I mean, xenophobia is as old as politics itself. When we play that card, all we politicians do is respond to your wishes. Remember that, but don’t blame yourselves. In fact, xenophobia is a value we share with our neighbours, a complementarity. So think of it as doing your bit for regional understanding.

They play their politics pretty hard, too. Ask the West Papuans. Speaking of whom, to make sure of the Indonesian president’s future goodwill, I told him that anything they did to those people was none of our business and protests would not be tolerated in Australia. “Grandstanding”, I called it – not that any of you would take much notice if they did.

We will decide who protests in Australia and the circumstances in which they do it.

Friends, I ask you to remember we are, all of us, men of our times. Robert Menzies was a man of his times. Julius Caesar and John Howard were men of their times, and I am a man of my times, too. There are times when I feel I must say one thing and times when I must say another, very different, thing. This is the way of the world. It is not that I am indifferent to truth, but that truth is indifferent to me.

I will decide what I say and the circumstances in which I say it.

But if it is appropriate for me to say sorry to the Indonesians and Malaysians for saying different things in different circumstances, it is also fitting that I say sorry to Australians for any like offences.

For instance, for saying that there was a budget “crisis” and a budget “emergency”, when in fact we knew there was no such thing, and, if anything, a bit of room for expansion, I say sorry. For making it all up and repeating it over and over again, I say sorry.

For saying we would bring honesty back to government when so far we’ve fallen a little short of that, I say sorry, very sorry, honestly I am. I am.

Take no notice of this grin – it’s a medical condition.

Oh, and “open” government, that was convenient at the time, but there’s a difference between open government and good government. Good governments don’t leak like a boat in the Arafura. Do you want to go back to the Rudd and Gillard days? I don’t think so. But sorry, just the same. Sorr-eee.

I will decide what you need to know and the circumstances in which you will be told.

For saying we would “turn back the boats”, I also say sorry. We should have added something like “where possible and appropriate having regard to the sensibilities of the Indonesians and other factors”. And “so long as they go along with it” – not that they ever were going to go along with it. I thought you’d know that. Anyway, I’m sorry.

Then there is the matter of man-made global warming. I have said the science is crap, and I’ve said it’s not entirely crap. There aren’t many positions I haven’t acknowledged as being among my own. What I won’t be doing is allowing science to dictate policy on something as important as this. Who made this so-called global warming, if not scientists? Scientists with their Bessemer converters and internal combustion engines and medicine to make us all live longer? It’s been them all along. Now they want you to pay for their guilt trip, is that it?

I remind you that no less a person than Maurice Newman, the very distinguished Australian I have just appointed chairman of my Business Advisory Council, thinks climate change is a myth. Am I to ignore the opinion of the man who ran the Australian Stock Exchange with such distinction and who corrected the gross bias of the ABC? Can you imagine Tim Flannery running the stock exchange?

Maurice Newman, John Howard and Cardinal Pell – an ecumenical trio of incomparable achievement – all believe man-made global warming is pretty much crap. Yet I intend to spend three billion dollars to stop it happening. I ask my critics: why would I spend three billion on something I thought was crap? Why? Why would the British Conservative government take it so seriously, why would the OECD applaud them for doing so, if they thought it was crap? Why? What would be the point?

We will decide what the point is, and when we have we’ll get back to you. Sorry.

I am also sorry for the absence of women in my cabinet. In my defence, let me say that Julie Bishop is worth half a dozen ordinary women, but even six in a cabinet of 18 is not good enough, especially as I made such a thing of having women about me during the election. So to the women of Australia, I say sorry, girls. Very, very sorry.

My fellow Australians, in the course of my prime ministership, things will be said that are right in one place but not another: right to ears in western Queensland, but east and south of the Divide less right; true in Jakarta, but in other places trueish at best.

My friends, in my acts of contrition while abroad I believe I have found a solution to the problem of political truth with which I have wrestled all my political life – and even before. While demonstrating my hearty regret and the hate I felt for myself for doing wrong when I could have done right, these acts were also performed in the national interest. And they performed admirably enough to show that they are as useful in the modern political arena as they have long been in the realm of the soul.

As a consequence, I have decided that every second Sunday after the triathlon and fire practice, I and such colleagues as also feel a need and have cleared it with my chief of staff will jointly perform public acts of contrition on Sky News or Insiders, depending on the subject matter. In accordance with tradition, we will not be answering questions.

I am confident that this will greatly free up and even revivify the national discourse, and allow your political leaders to enter into a more natural conversation with you the people. The accumulated dishonesty of a fortnight will be swept away, the decks will be cleared, and we can all march on: refreshed, cleansed, clear-headed and bold.

I will be riding the bicycle home, except for one stretch that I will swim. I need to clear my head before I make a couple of phone calls. My chief of staff will take the bike.

Good night.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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