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No regrets: Tony Abbott, AC, stands by his time at the top

Mr Abbott, appointed on Monday as a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest award within the civilian honours system, stands by the most difficult and divisive spending cuts of his government.

Even the $7 co-payment on Medicare services was right, he says, when the budget deficit was so deep.

“It was always going to be tough to end the cash splash of borrowed money that we confronted after the Rudd and Gillard years,” he says in an interview.

“A lot of people were very unhappy with the 2014 budget, but it was actually the last budget that attempted serious economic reform, and I think that history will be a lot kinder to the 2014 budget than its contemporaries were.”

Other judgments are not so kind. Mr Abbott’s own Coalition MPs rose up against many of the measures in the May 2014 budget and forced him to scrap the co-payment as well as a long waiting period for unemployment benefits.

On the nose with voters, Mr Abbott was removed in September 2015 and it was left to his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, to reverse some of the savings on schools and hospitals.

Mr Abbott with then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017.

Mr Abbott with then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017.Credit:AAP

It was also left to Mr Turnbull to formally dump Mr Abbott’s decision to restore knights and dames. Mr Abbott has acknowledged the incredible political cost of the knighthood he bestowed on Prince Philip in January 2015 – a move that triggered a leadership challenge without a challenger – but it has not shaken his monarchist credo. It seems fitting he receives his AC in the Queen’s Birthday honours list.

Mr Abbott will not be drawn on Mr Turnbull’s memoir, A Bigger Picture, which painted a portrait of a dysfunctional administration. Mr Abbott’s version, which he told in three essays for Quadrant after he lost power, is that a good government was undermined from within.

“I have no intention of writing memoirs,” he says. “I’ve said what needed to be said in the defence of the Abbott government. Memoirs are invariably self-serving and I’ll just leave the histories to the historians.”


The citation for Monday’s honour names Mr Abbott’s contribution to the Indigenous community, but his government, like others, failed to reach its goals on closing the gap. The latest report revealed the gap in mortality rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians increased last year.

Mr Abbott rejected a proposal from Indigenous leaders to recognise First Australians in the constitution.

But he believes he was right to work on ways to keep Indigenous children in school, something he did during his visits to Indigenous communities while leader.

“It’s no kindness to Aboriginal people and it’s no sign of respect to Aboriginal culture to turn what is effectively a blind eye to chronic absenteeism,” he says.

“Every kid has got to go to school every day and that’s just as true of Aboriginal kids as it is of everyone else. Likewise, every adult has got to have some meaningful task, whether they’re working for a wage or effectively working for the dole.

“Every adult has got to have some meaning and purpose in his or her life if he or she is to be a suitable role model. That’s true in every Australian community – black, white, mixed, whatever.”

Mr Abbott blames Chinese leaders for a cooling in the relationship with Australia since his government signed three big trade deals – with China, Japan and South Korea – and hosted a visit to Canberra and Tasmania by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I think that as late as 2015 we all still thought that China was liberalising. What is now absolutely crystal clear is that China is not liberalising at all,” he says.

“I think it is China that’s changed since then. What we’ve seen since then is not the panda bear but the dragon breathing fire.”


He says his government “took no backward steps” in dealing with China and flew military aircraft through China’s self-proclaimed air defence identification zones, as well as arguing for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“We want to be the best possible friend of China, consistent with our absolutely unbreakable security partnership with the United States and our nature as a strong and free democracy,” he says.

Does Mr Trump and his presidency weaken that security partnership?

“The short answer is no,” Abbott says. “But one thing I’m not going to do is offer a running commentary today… I think that’s a bit unseemly for a retired prime minister.”

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