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Interview with Senator Eric Abetz

Sunday Agenda program, 29th November 2009

David Speers: I’m joined now from Hobart by the Liberal Deputy Senate Leader, Eric
Abetz, who is one of those who resigned from Malcolm Turnbull’s frontbench on
Thursday night, bringing this crisis to a head.
Eric Abetz, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us what are the numbers as far as
you’re aware this morning? Who are the Liberals getting behind?

Eric Abetz: Good morning, David. Look, I’m not going to speculate in relation to the
leadership. I’ve always seen this issue through the spectrum of policy, not the spectrum
or prism of leadership. And the Galaxy poll this morning clearly shows that those of us
that are geared, and I would say a majority of the party room, wanted this issue to be
delayed until after Copenhagen. It makes good sense and, to boot, 60 percent of
Australians actually support our position.

David Speers: Alright, well I’d like to get onto that policy in a moment. But do you really
think Malcolm Turnbull can survive, having scraped through that first leadership vote,
only to have another one in less than a week? Clearly he is going to, even if he can win
this week, still have enormous divisions in his party.

Eric Abetz: I don’t want to speculate on the leadership, David. Suffice to say that when
there’s a second spill motion in just a few days, it’s clear that there are some issues that
the leadership needs to address.

David Speers: But would you support any leader, be it Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey or
anyone else, if they continue to hold the policy that there needs to be a vote on this
emissions trading deal?

Eric Abetz: The reason that I resigned from my leader’s frontbench is that I was unable
to support his position. And might I simply add, David, that on the 28 th October, whilst
Ian MacFarlane was in negotiations with the Labor Party about this emissions trading
scheme, Malcolm Turnbull himself moved a second reading amendment which called for
the deferral of this legislation until after Copenhagen. What Malcolm Turnbull said on
the 28th October still makes very good sense on the 28 th November. And I can see no
reason to rush this legislation, seeing it doesn’t come into effect for another 19 months.
The Australian people, 80 percent of them, agree that they don’t understand the
legislation and we as a senate are being asked to rush through the biggest structural
reform ever to the Australian economy with only 15 hours of debate thus far. Native title
took 57 hours in the senate.

David Speers: Sorry to interrupt, but that amendment that you talk about that Malcolm
Turnbull moved back on the 28th October to defer the vote, was before of course you had
struck a deal with the government. Now the Coalition went to the government offering a
set of amendments that they wanted met. The government substantially met many of
those, and then the leader said that in the party room a marathon meeting, agreed in a
majority vote to back those amendments. That’s what changed.

Eric Abetz: Well, David, with great respect, I do not accept that interpretation of the
party room. On my calculation and a lot of other colleagues, there were 32 that spoke in
favour, 41 spoke against. But out of those 32 that spoke for, a lot of them also said we
would prefer to defer all this until after Copenhagen. And of course all those that spoke

Sunday Agenda 29th November 2009 Sen. Eric Abetz


against also said it makes good sense to wait until after Copenhagen. So there was an
overwhelming majority in the party room asking for deferral until after Copenhagen. And
what’s more, 60 percent of the Australian people agree with that position.

David Speers: Yes, but the frontbenchers, the shadow ministers, didn’t speak in that
party room meeting. And this is the difference here, isn’t it? Malcolm Turnbull says
once you include those frontbenchers, who are a part of the party room, there is a
majority support for that position.

Eric Abetz: Well, I’ve only had 15 years in the party room and I have never seen a
leader pull out of his back pocket the 20 or so votes of cabinet or shadow cabinet to roll
the feeling of the backbenchers. And all I can say is that from my reading of it, there
was a strong feeling that this issue should be deferred until after Copenhagen. And
David, can I tell you, even President Obama’s Democrats in the senate have seen the
good sense of that. Along with the Republican senators, they have jointly agreed to
defer further consideration until after Copenhagen. Now I don’t think you would describe
Barack Obama’s Democrats in the United States as ‘do nothing’ senators, as climate
change deniers and all the other hyperbole that we’ve been subjected to. It just makes
good common sense. And might I add, the US isn’t alone in this. Canada has taken a
similar position. And if the will of the Australian people as per the polls were to be
implemented, the Australian parliament would be in lockstep with the United States and
Canada.

David Speers: Well Joe Hockey also emerged from those two meetings, the party room
meeting on the ETS and then the following day’s leadership spill, saying that Malcolm
Turnbull’s position was in the national interest and the party’s interest. Do you accept
that Joe Hockey has supported the position of Malcolm Turnbull in all of this?

Eric Abetz: The public record will clearly disclose that Joe Hockey has done that, and it
is for Mr. Hockey to discuss and speak for himself. I don’t want to put words into
anybody’s mouth. And I say to you again, David, I see this not through the leadership
prism, but through the policy prism, because this is the biggest structural reform ever to
the Australian economy. And if you thought the GST was complicated, wait until you get
into the detail.

David Speers: If Joe Hockey emerges as leader, will you expect him to change his
stated position on the ETS?

Eric Abetz: I believe that any leader of the Liberal Party, whether it remains as Malcolm
Turnbull or anybody else, will need to see the will of the party room and accede to it and
agree to deferring this issue until after Copenhagen. It reflects the overwhelming view of
the party room and now it reflects the overwhelming view of 60 percent of the Australian
population.

David Speers: Now Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters of course say that if you do
adopt the position you’re advocating and defer this vote, the government will call a
double dissolution election. And Kevin Rudd will very easily be able to run the argument
that the Coalition are a mob of climate change deniers, that you don’t believe in global
warming. Do you fear a campaign being fought on this issue?

Eric Abetz: A lot of people have said that to me and, with great respect, that can easily
be debunked. A lot of people said they supported a tax reform before the specifics of

Sunday Agenda 29th November 2009 Sen. Eric Abetz


the GST were put before them. A lot of people said they supported a Republic before a
particular Republican proposal was put before them, and the Australian people voted it
down. I believe that the Coalition, if need be, and this is only hypothetical, if need be
could run an effective campaign, not this particular emissions trading scheme. Look, I
voted for the new renewable energy target. I have voted for increased funding for
renewable energy. I have voted for measures to see a decrease in Australia’s carbon
footprint. So let’s debunk that assertion. The question is, whether the emissions trading
scheme as currently drafted is within the nation’s best interests. And can I simply say,
with 1.5 percent of the world’s emissions, Australia acting unilaterally at great cost to
every man, woman and child in Australia, we will not see one iota change in the world’s
climate. And therefore it is ill advised. I see this, David, as a risk management issue.
And from a risk management issue you would ask, if Australia took action, what would
change? And I think every scientist agrees, if Australia acts unilaterally, there will be no
change. So what we need to do is get on board with the rest of the world. And that is
why waiting until Copenhagen makes such eminent good sense.

David Speers: Eric Abetz, some of your colleagues have said to me that this is more
than just about the ETS. It’s a philosophical fight over the future of the Liberal Party. Do
you agree with that? And do you honestly think that whatever happens this week with
the leadership, such deep divisions in the party between the conservatives and the
moderates can be healed?

Eric Abetz: People like to pigeon hole these issues as left, right, conservative, small,
Liberal, whatever. I see it more in relation to the issue that we are confronting. And can
I say, within the United States, Barack Obama’s Democrats are siding with the
Republicans in a unity ticket to say let’s defer until after Copenhagen. And that is across
the political divide in the United States. It is this ham-fisted approach by Kevin Rudd,
who wants to sacrifice the Australian economy at the altar of his own ego, so he can go
to Copenhagen and wave a bit of paper in the air and say ‘look how clever I am’. Well, I
don’t want to be party to that, because it will not be within our nation’s interests.

David Speers: Alright, Liberal Senator, Eric Abetz, we’ll have to leave it there. But thank
you for joining us today.

Sunday Agenda 29th November 2009 Sen. Eric Abetz