I was at a literary function the other day and heard a publisher make a cheap shot about a Federal Minister and by extension the present Government. There was much laughter, and I thought again how easy it is for us, all of us, to simplify everything we encounter by using stereotypes. Tony Abbott is such a good example. He seemed to arouse an almost visceral anger in lots of people, including some of my own family. Yet none of my lot has even met him, or seen him close up. He exists in so many minds as a stereotype, and in general a bad one.
I haven’t met Tony Abbott either. He is a generation and more younger than I am, and I didn’t encounter him in his time in Parliament. From those who have worked for him in the Howard period I have learned that he was a competent and intelligent Minister. About his being PM I haven’t heard anything. But I learned a great deal about him from a book written by Geg Sheridan, who is the foreign editor of The Australian. Sheridan’s book, When We Were Young and Foolish, is an account of his own boyhood and young manhood. It is a good read, describing what it was like to be a young Catholic born into a Labor family in Sydney, unsure of whether or not he ought to be a priest, a politician or a journalist. He chose the latter course, and as a journalist he is very good indeed.
Tony Abbott, of like age, was a friend, and a good one, and the second half of the book has a good deal about him, also someone who considered being a priest, was a journalist, and finished as a politician. He comes across as a young man of passion, commitment, energy and intelligence, successful in what he did, unsure of his proper path in life, like Sheridan, pulled in different ways by different people. He could have been a member of the ALP, and Labor did it best to lure him into its ranks. It turns out that the same was true of Malcolm Turnbull, though Sheridan was not close to him.
Sheridan sums up the young Abbott like this: Tony had all the skills. So did a number of other people — writing well, speaking well, courage in battle, organisational ability, effective and easy in dealing with people. That combination was unusual but not unique. What set Tony apart were two things — the depth of his drive and energy to achieve whatever his present objective was. Some wiseacre said that 80 per cent of success in life is just showing up. Tony always showed up.
The point about Tony Abbott and Malcom Turnbull (and Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr, also part of the Sheridan network of young aspirants) is that they were marked out as young men by the old and experienced as unusually gifted and determined, an asset to any party. Sheridan thought at the time that Abbott could go on to be Prime Minister, and he was right in that. Turnbull he saw as almost unbelievably talented, and regrets that he didn’t stay in journalism, because he was so good at writing, and had such a flair for finding out.
There’s nothing much in the book about climate change, other than that Abbott was passionate about his view that it was a snare and a delusion. But with the Paris meeting starting today, it interests me to speculate about how the two Liberal leaders would deal with a much-heralded international meeting where there is extremely strong pressure to agree to something, but also a complex mix of national interests, as well as political ideologies. We will know in due course what Malcolm Turnbull does. But my guess is that Tony Abbott would have done much the same, for good reason. There would be a difference, and I’ll come to that at the end.
Any national leader who goes to a meeting like this needs to have his or her head screwed on well. The NGOs are there making a fuss, and there will be meetings with other national leaders. There will be a draft agreement, which one’s public servants and other advisers will have already argued about, probably inconclusively. Then there will be one’s reservoir of commonsense, both political and personal. And then, what is it that one wants to come home with?
There will be those who think that Tony Abbott would not have gone there at all, and simply sent someone from DFAT. That wouldn’t do. Or rather, you could it only if there were an quiet agreement among a lot of leaders that they would give this one a miss. Since Australia is a big producer and user of coal, and so much of the event is about reducing that use, not to be there would be to give ammunition to one’s opponents, at home and abroad. Every Government department that has overseas interests, and that is at least a half of them, will have views about Australia’s position, because they will have projects, not to mention possible and existing agreements that are important to them.
The whole diplomatic environment is full of useful relationships that might be imperilled if one’s country does something that is unpopular with other countries. The truth is that ‘climate change’, and dealing with it, are agreed high-priority international issues. You can say, as Tony Abbott did, that some of the science surrounding the issue is ‘crap’, but Paris and CoP21 is not the place to say it. Your savvy national leader will talk the talk as neatly as he or she can. If there is an agreement that is not acceptable to those back home, the leader will shrug, and tell those present that while he can sign it, there will be difficulties back home. President Obama ought to say that. Mr Turnbull won’t have to.
My guess is that there will be some sort of agreement, but it won’t be binding, to the dismay of the CAGW believers and the Green politicians everywhere. Mr Tunrbull has said, and will say again, that Australia’s proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions are sensible and achievable and what Labor and the Greens are proposing are neither achievable nor sensible. he’s right there, too. Mr Abbott, had he been PM, would have done much the same.
The difference is that Mr Turnbull will get away with it, and Mr Abbott would have been pilloried. It’s hard for the ABC and the Fairfax media to attack Malcolm Turnbull. He has been their favourite for a long time — a man of the right with some left sympathies. Had Tony Abbott come home with whatever is the outcome, he would have been pilloried: he is the evil one for those media entities, who would see the outcome as his fault, for not having fought harder.
They should read Sheridan’s book.
Later footnote: Anthony Watts carries an updated version of Andy May’s illustrated history of the last 18,000 years, in which climate change and human civilisation are closely connected. This is real climate change… An excellent read, and it comes with a chart that will print out well.
Note that this link has a space in it. I can’t seem to correct it!