“While we still seem to be in the grip of a climate cult, the climate cult is going to produce policy outcomes that will cause people to wake up to themselves,” he said.
“Sooner or later, in the end, people get hit over the head by reality.”
Historical changes to the climate “make me think, as a matter of simple logic, that carbon dioxide emissions, particularly human carbon dioxide, are not the only, or even the main factor here,” he reportedly said.
So turns out the former PM is actually quite selective in the experts he listens to.
It is not much more than six months ago that Abbott sat in a candidates’ debate at the Queenscliff Surf Club, against the woman who would take his seat from him, Independent Zali Steggall, and assured Warringah voters he believed in climate change, while warning of the cost of transition to a low-carbon economy.
You could ask if he was dissembling then, or now, but the answer seems too obvious.
The Israeli radio host later told The Guardian that some listeners “were terribly angry at us for airing such extremist views”. He seemed surprised that a former Australian prime minister held them.
The incident led me to consider a strange thought experiment – what if Tony Abbott had been prime minister during this unprecedented, vicious and terrifying bushfire crisis?
It is safe to say he would not have left for a secret Hawaiian holiday during it, then tried to conceal the holiday from the public, and he would not have later defended that misstep by parrying, as Morrison did, that “I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room”.
Abbott would have been holding the hose. You could not have kept him from the control room.
But the corollary of climate-change denial – or climate change whatareyagunnado? – which seems to be the Morrison government position, is that your reactions to the suffering inflicted by the bushfires are complicated by the mental calibrations you must do to ensure you don’t imply any of it is worse than usual, or will be into the future. And it may have challenged even Abbott.
After that prime ministerial press conference at Bligh Street – during which Morrison was brittle and defensive when asked about the government’s plan to protect Australians against the long-term economic and environmental effects of climate change – the PM left to visit the fire-affected zones.
The ensuing footage of him being rejected and abused by some locals went global.
His tepid leadership during the crisis has united voices as disparate as loudmouth conservative British TV host Piers Morgan, celebrity Lara Bingle (now Worthington), American actress and diva Bette Midler, and NSW Liberal Minister Andrew Constance in their condemnation.
The body language Morrison exhibited during those community encounters was extraordinary. When visiting Cobargo, on the NSW South Coast, he went to shake the hand of local woman Zoey McDermott. She said she would only shake his hand if he promised more funding for the Rural Fire Service.
The Prime Minister took her hand and shook it anyway, her voice cracking as she begged for more relief money.
Morrison then put a hand on the woman’s shoulder and edged away, as someone awkwardly avoiding the eye of a panhandler on the street.
The incredible part was not even the lack of instinctive empathy, the failure to take the woman aside to engage with her in some way. The incredible part was that this woman was not even particularly hostile, and what she asked for – more money – is well within the power of a prime minister to promise, or at least commit to looking into.
A few moments later, he is shown being roundly abused by locals, and beats a hasty retreat.
Separate footage shows him again imposing a prime ministerial handshake on a firefighter who clearly wishes to refuse him. Morrison stands about awkwardly for a moment before wandering off. On Friday, he handled a friendlier crowd in Victoria with a bit more assurance.
Every prime minister faces angry constituents and every prime minister deals with them according to his or her own style.
In 2018, at the national apology to the survivors of institutional sex abuse, Morrison was heckled by angry, traumatised survivors in the Great Hall of Parliament (where Gillard, who initiated the royal commission, was cheered and embraced).
He took it humbly.
Later that day, he walked out to the Parliament forecourt, where the survivors had gathered, and spent time talking quietly with them and sympathising with them.
But that was on his turf, in an environment he felt comfortable in, a short walk from the refuge of the blue carpeted-PMO.
The issue of institutional sex abuse, while tragic, was not something over which he was going to lose any political skin.
The fire crisis is different because Morrison has a gaping climate change policy hole at the centre of his government.
His government’s passivity, and its insistence it was waiting for the states to tell the Commonwealth what to do, puzzled locals on the ground and made no political sense. But yesterday, Morrison finally imposed federal authority over the states by announcing the Army Reserve would be called out to fire zones without waiting for requests.
It has seemed that at times the government expects reality to bend to the political expectations it set at the beginning of its term. It won’t. Reality keeps burning and will burn for a long time yet.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards