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10 Malicious Missteps Of The Tony Abbott Government

by David Tormsen
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Anthony John “Tony” Abbott, Australia’s 28th prime minister, has proven to be a controversial figure both at home and abroad. He has been known for a proclivity to wearing “budgie smuggler” swimwear and eating a raw onion on live television. John Oliver was able to devote an entire segment to lampooning the Australian PM. But do his views and policies really deserve to be pilloried in the way that they are? Read on and find 10 malicious mistakes and misdeeds of the Abbott government.

10 Rampant Misogyny

Displeased Woman
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard once referred to Tony Abbott as “the definition of misogyny in modern Australia,” and it’s not hard to see why. He has a history of gaffes that strongly suggest a 1950s-era view of women. He has referred to abortion as “the easy way out” for women, said women are “physiologically unsuited to leadership,” and praised fellow Liberal Party candidate Fiona Scott as having “sex appeal.” During his campaign, he addressed the Australian Big Brother house on television: “Vote for me because I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, a Liberal fundraising event with Abbott’s future Treasurer Joe Hockey in attendance served up a menu featuring an item dubbed “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail—small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.” While Abbott condemned the menu as “tacky and scatological,” he denied that it would affect the preelection chances of the LNP candidate who came up with it. He didn’t help his anti-women reputation by being photographed smiling in front of anti-Gillard placards reading “Juliar—[Green Party Leader] Bob Brown’s Bitch” and “Ditch the Witch.”

When Abbott was elected, the practical results of his worldview were clear as day, given his political choices. His initial cabinet had only one female member, later doubled to two in 2014 (compared to four under both Rudd and Gillard). The Prime Minister expressed “disappointment” that there weren’t more viable female choices, but, alas, his appointments were made “on merit.” At the time, the opposition leader commented that Australia had less female representation on the cabinet level than Afghanistan. Abbott himself hilariously (or horrifyingly) appointed himself as Minister for Women, with West Australian senator Michaelia Cash “assisting.” His rationale was, “This will ensure that these key whole-of-government priorities are at the centre of government.” Most feminists, female politicians, and rational humans remain unconvinced.

9 War On Wind Farms

Wind Farm
Tony Abbott believes that wind farms are “visually appalling,” noisy, and a potential health risk, in spite of increasing support in Australia for renewable energy and the National Health and Medical Research Council reporting no plausible link between wind turbines and health problems. He has gone on record as saying he wishes the previous Howard government had never passed the Renewable Energy Target (RET) policy, which sought to generate 20 percent of Australia’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, calculated at the time as 41,000 gigawatt hours of electricity.

Increased energy efficiency led to recalculations, indicating that renewables would actually account for closer to 27 percent of Australia’s energy requirements by 2020, which has led to Abbott seeking to reduce that number to prevent further expansion of wind farms. In spite of the fact that the clean energy industry was a healthy and growing sector of the Australian economy, Abbott crowed about his achievement on the right-wing Alan Jones radio show: “I frankly would have liked to have reduced the number a lot more. But we got the best deal we could, and if we hadn’t had a deal, we would have been stuck with even more of these things.”

According to the Australian Financial Review, the uncertainty caused by Abbott’s shift in established policy has cost the Australian renewable energy sector hundreds of jobs and billions in investment. At the same time, Abbott has long been in favor of fossil fuels, saying, “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.” Considering the environmental damage and appalling visual appearance of coal mining and fossil fuel plants, he’s pretty obviously being disingenuous.

8 Climate Change Denial

It’s no crime to have a healthy skepticism of environmental doomsday scenarios, but Tony Abbott’s views on climate change are downright myopic when they aren’t maddeningly vague. In a 2009 climate change interview he said, “Climate change is real. But I think there are lots of legitimate questions about its extent, how much humans are causing it, and certainly there is a very real and necessary debate about the mechanism for dealing with it.” This was one day after assuming leadership of the Liberal Party, which until that point had acknowledged that the dangers of climate change had been widely confirmed by the scientific community. Abbott preferred to keep things ambiguous while relying on others, like senior Senator Nick Minchin, to claim climate change was a vast and global left-wing conspiracy.

While Abbott had gone on record saying that he believed the arguments for climate change were “crap” in 2009, since then, he has had to be cautious due to widespread public concern about the issue. Abbott has largely limited his criticism to hedging and weasel words, calling scientific consensus on global warming “theology” during a radio interview. On a visit to the US, he praised a crowd in Texas for their state’s fossil fuel burning while accepting massive political donations from the fossil fuel lobby in Australia.

In 2015, the prime inister’s office issued a $4 million grant for the creation of an “Australian Consensus Center” at the University of Western Australia to promote the ideas of Danish climate change contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, who has been accused of cherry-picking data in order to play down the effects of climate change. After heavy criticism by UWA academic staff, the university returned the grant. However, other universities are said to have come forward to express interest in hosting the center.

7 Prince Philip Knighthood

Prince Philip

Photo credit: Carfax2

This isn’t so much horrifying as somewhat ludicrously old-fashioned. Deciding to give Prince Philip an Australian knighthood was a strange decision in a country where support for a republic is still high, and the Prince was known in the country for a question to a group of Aborigines in 2002: “Do you still throw spears at each other?” The very fact that there was even an Australian knighthood to give was Abbott’s own hare-brained idea. He decided to reintroduce knights and dames of the Order of Australia, which had been phased out as archaic and colonial back in 1986. The revived titles would also be bestowed entirely on the whim of the prime minister, while other honors for eminent Australians are decided by an independent body called the Council for the Order of Australia.

The rationale behind reviving knights and dames was also a bit on the nose: Other honors were dedicated to “eminent” Australians, while knighthoods and damehoods were for “pre-eminent” Australians. Knighting Prince Philip was a decision that came completely out of left field, and everyone saw something in it to hate. Abbott’s political opponents saw it as evidence of his reactionary and regressive worldview, while members of his cabinet bridled at not being consulted on the decision—with one member of the staff referring to it as “f—ing stupid.”

To add insult to injury, the appointment was announced on Australia Day, with one conservative minister complaining, “It’s Australia Day. We’re not a bunch of tossers, let’s get it right.” A poll by the Australian Broadcasting Network opinion website the Drum showed that 93 percent of Australians opposed the knighthood. Even the pro-Liberal Murdoch conservative media turned against him over it, and it led to a challenge to Abbot’s leadership that almost brought him down. A likely baffled Queen Elizabeth II awarded her husband with the insignia of a Knight of the Order of Australia in April 2015.

6 ‘Lifestyle Choices’

Tony Abbott: Remote Indigenous living a “lifestyle choice” (10/5/15)

In 2015, the Western Australian (WA) government decided to close down 150 remote communities of Aborigines after after it was announced that the federal funding keeping them afloat would soon be allowed to lapse. WA Premier Colin Barnett said that while no one would be forced from the land, the state would no longer be able to provide “services,” namely electricity and water.

Tony Abbott, in a radio interview in Kalgoorlie, defended the move:

What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have. If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap. It is not unreasonable for the state government to say if the cost of providing services in a particular remote location is out of all proportion to the benefits being delivered. Fine, by all means live in a remote location, but there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.

Aboriginal leaders hit back against Abbott, saying that the communities were established for cultural reasons of the ancient connection between the people and their ancestral land. Cutting off services would only lead to health problems for those who remain, and a lack of public housing and jobs for those who decide to move to larger towns may lead to overcrowding and people forced to sleep on the streets. Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson commented:

Does Australia want to have a relationship with Aboriginal people, or does it not? Or does it simply want to improve the management and control systems over the lives of Aboriginal people? That’s the seminal issue. Everything to date has been about management. How do we keep them in the reserves, isolated from the public? Then, how do we force them into some form of assimilation? And now? No one knows where it is going now.

5 ‘Things Happen’

Tony Abbott joins Q&A

Concerns over refugees arriving in Australia by boat was a political hot-button issue in the 2000s, with the John Howard government developing the “Pacific Solution,” in which asylum-seekers would be taken to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or the island nation of Nauru for processing before being allowed into the country, if they were found to be legitimate refugees. The policy was scrapped in 2007 after criticism from human rights groups, only to be revived under Julia Gillard and maintained by Tony Abbott. Abbott has been vocal about his opposition to refugees arriving in Australia, saying in 2010, “Jesus didn’t say yes to everyone. Jesus knew that there was a place for everything, and it is not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”

In 2015, a government-sponsored review on the refugee centers on Nauru and Manus found instances where female immigration detainees were raped, indications that Nauruan guards were exchanging marijuana with detainees for sexual favors, and a widespread culture of physical and sexual abuse. Most of the detainees are from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

When questioned about the findings of the review, Abbott acknowledged the seriousness of the issue but insisted that most detainees were well-treated most of the time, but, “Occasionally, I daresay, things happen, because in any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect.” The review indicated that many detainees were apprehensive about making abuse complaints because they feared it would adversely affect their chances of receiving asylum and probably wouldn’t be investigated anyway.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young alleged that she was spied on by security personnel while she made an inspection of the Nauru facility. Abbott scoffed at the claim, saying she was just being “looked after,” a perspective Hanson-Young would call “creepy.” Meanwhile, Abbott has been under fire from human rights groups and neighboring countries like Indonesia for flatly rejecting any hope that asylum seekers from the beleaguered Rohingya minority in Myanmar would be allowed to settle in Australia.

4 Metadata Retention

In late 2014, the Abbott government announced plans to introduce a law forcing telecommunications companies to retain customer data for two years in order to assist law enforcement to conduct investigations without a warrant, meant as an anti-terrorism measure. When the previous Gillard government had proposed a similar scheme, Liberal party member and current Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull called it an effort to restrain free speech.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015 passed in March with little opposition, making service providers required by law to store data such as account holder names and addresses, date, time, duration, and recipients of communications, and locations of communications equipment like cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots.

Civil liberties activists, legal experts, and journalists criticized the scheme, but Abbott was unimpressed. Speaking of his own experience as a journalist in the 1980s, Abbott said, “There were no metadata protections for journalists and if any agency, including the RSPCA or the local council, had wanted my metadata they could’ve just gone and got it on authorisation. So I was perfectly comfortable as a journalist.” Head of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Paul Murphy called the comparison “ludicrous,” given the vast increase in access to personal data compared to the 1980s.

The MEAA argues that the bill represents an attack on civil liberties: “None of the amendments being proposed to the legislation recognise or protect the vital role of journalists and whistleblowers in a healthy democracy. The legislation does not offer protection. It enables persecution and prosecution.” Telecommunications companies are also less than thrilled with the costs of retaining data, which Tony Abbott admitted may work out to $400 million per year, but were “a small price to pay to give ourselves the kind of safety and the kind of freedom that people in a country like Australia deserve.”

3 ‘Heads Should Roll’

Abbott: “Heads should roll at ABC”

In 2015, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) got into hot water over allowing Zaky Mallah, a convicted criminal, to participate in the live broadcast of political talk show Q&A. Mallah had pleaded guilty in 2003 of making death threats against officials from the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO), has since been characterized by some as a terrorist sympathizer, and is known for making threats against women on social media. The program featured a testy exchange between Mallah and Parliamentary Secretary Steven Ciobo, who said he would be happy to see people like Zaky Mallah kicked out of the country. Mallah replied by saying that comments like that justified young Australian Muslims going to Syria and joining the Islamic State, forcing the host to intervene. The ABC would go on to admit that allowing Mallah to participate on the show was an “error in judgment.”

Tony Abbott used the controversy to launch an all-out attack on the ABC, saying that they instinctively take “everyone’s side but Australia’s” and that they should have “some basic affection for the home team.” In recent memory, the ABC has been instrumental in revealing (via Edward Snowden) that Australian intelligence officials had attempted to target the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and his inner circle, as well as claims by asylum seekers that they had been mistreated and burned by Australian personnel during turn-back operations at sea. Abbott was quick to leap on the ABC over the Zaky Mallah case, saying it was, “utterly incomprehensible. Here we had the ABC admitting a gross error of judgment and then compounding that terrible mistake, that betrayal, if you like, of our country . . . by rebroadcasting the program. Now, frankly, heads should roll over this.” He would even refer to the public broadcaster as a “lefty lynch mob” and call for an internal inquiry.

Many have suspected that Abbott is using the controversy to attack the independence of the ABC, with the Greens accusing the government of taking the issue to “hysterical levels of stridency.” ABC managing director Mark Scott said the network was a “public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster” and was allowed to air views contrary to the preferences or opinions of the government.

2 Weird Prejudice

Tony Abbott has become famous for his tone-deaf and prejudiced attitude toward many different groups, including women and Aborigines as mentioned earlier, but also homosexuals and the Irish.

Tony Abbott has a rocky history with the concept of gay marriage and homosexuality itself. Back in 2010, when asked how he felt about homosexuality, he testily replied that he would “probably feel a bit threatened . . . as most people do.” He declined to explain exactly what he meant by that, saying he tried to take people as they come, but that with homosexuals “there is no doubt that [homosexuality] challenges, if you like, orthodox notions of the right order of things.”

As opposition leader in 2013, Abbott expressed his reluctance to engage in what he called radical change, referring to gay marriage as the “fashion of the moment.” In 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed suggestions that a referendum be held on the issue.

As for the Irish, Abbott has a history of weirdly archaic, prejudiced statements. As opposition leader, he portrayed backers of the Julia Gillard government as being “a bit like the Irishman who lost 10 pounds betting on the Grand National and then lost 20 pounds on the action replay,” which led to backlash from both the Irish-Australian community and the Embassy of the Republic of Ireland.

He then got himself into further hot water when he gave an offensive St. Patrick’s Day message in 2015. In the video, he cheerily wore a green tie while perpetuating stereotypes about Irish alcoholism (expressing regret that “I can’t be there to share a Guinness or two or maybe even three”) and reducing Irish contributions to Australian society to songs and a sense of humor. It was widely condemned as patronizing, with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenney calling it representative of a “stage Irish perception.”

1 2014 G20 Summit

2014 G20 Summit

In 2014, the leaders of the 20 most economically important countries of the world met in Queensland, Australia, and Tony Abbott proceeded to make a bit of a fool of himself. He asked the leaders to limit themselves to only five minutes for speaking and to refer to each other by their first names to promote “warmth,” which seems more than a tad presumptuous. He used the opportunity of a captive audience of world leaders to complain about domestic issues, such as a failure to impose a fee of $7 on people paying visits to their general practitioners, which he blamed on voters who love free government programs supporting wasteful spending.

He also engaged in a fair bit of alienating self-promotion, such as bragging about how he got rid of a carbon tax that had been imposed by the previous Labor government (in spite of the fact that the United States and China had just signed an agreement to mutually reduce carbon emissions) and also how he had helped to stop boats of asylum-seekers from reaching Australia (in front of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has been vocal in opposition to Australian naval vessels violating Indonesian territorial waters while turning back refugee boats). Opposition leader Bill Shorten would go on to describe the prime minister’s comments as at best “weird and graceless” and at worst as a “disastrous missed opportunity for Australia.”

Prior to the G20 summit, Abbott had talked tough about Russian president Putin and the alleged downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, saying, “I am going to shirtfront Mr Putin—you bet I am—I am going to be saying to Mr Putin Australians were murdered, they were murdered by Russian backed rebels.” The term “shirtfront,” for those confused, is an Australian rules football term meaning to rough up an opponent with a direct attack. When things came right down to it, however, the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders ended with nothing more than a trending image on social media of Abbott and Putin cuddling some cute koalas.

David Tormsen had to write most of this article in American, which is why he hasn’t used profanity as punctuation. Email him at [email protected].

fact checked by Jamie Frater