Tony Abbott served as prime minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015 as a member of the Liberal Party. In this episode, recorded during the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship Conference in London, Abbott talks about the geopolitics of energy, the qualities of a good politician, and why he believes the world is more dangerous than ever. (Recorded October 31, 2023.)
Robert Bryce 0:00
Welcome, everyone to the power hungry podcast. My name is Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m pleased to welcome Tony Abbott. He’s the former Prime Minister of Australia, Prime Minister who I still would refer to as prime minister.
Tony Abbott 0:13
It’s very polite of you Americans to refer to me as prime minister. But welcome
Robert Bryce 0:18
to the power hungry podcast, Tony, Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Prime Minister, I warned you I don’t want all of my guests. But guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So imagine you’ve arrived somewhere and no one knows who you are. You got 60 seconds. Please tell us who you are.
Tony Abbott 0:32
Tony Abbott, 28th, Prime Minister of Australia, in parliament for 25 years, married to Margie with three kids. Before I went into parliament, I was a journalist more than I was anything else. And look, it’s an honor to be here at this alliance for responsible citizenship conference. And it’s good to be talking about energy and geopolitics because the two are related. And if we want to have a safe and secure world, the democracies certainly shouldn’t be prejudicing their energy security the way we are right now.
Robert Bryce 1:09
Well, let’s I do want to make energy and geopolitics, particularly in the wake of October 7, because I think the geopolitics have changed dramatically and energy have changed after Hamas, Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. But before we do that, let’s let’s just a bit of background. So you’re born in Britain, you live in Britain now. Now I died. I live in Australia or you live in Australia. I’m born here in Britain, and then you move to Australia and but you have kind of a foot in both countries still no?
Tony Abbott 1:37
Well, yes. And now. My mum and dad were Aussies who met and married in England. Mum was doing the work that dad was doing post graduate study in London at the time, Mum was doing the Aussie trip to England, which is still a bit of a rite of passage for Australians. And they had me and my my sister, and then they went back to Australia after dad had finished his his studies and had two more kids. So I then came back to England to study at Oxford. After I’d been at Sydney University for five years, I had a wonderful time at Oxford, someone who said that Oxford leaves you quote magnificently, unprepared for the long littleness of life, unquote. They did offer me a third year at Oxford. And I declined, not because I didn’t enjoy my time immensely. But because I knew that if I had another year in England, I’d never go back to Australia. And I wanted to stay in Australia, and I didn’t want to become a Britain, right, as much as I love this place as much as I think that Britain is in so many ways of the mother culture. Right.
Robert Bryce 2:50
Well, and that’s been a theme of the art conference. But let me come back to that because I wanted to, I’ve been a journalist, my whole reporter, my whole career, never had a real job. You went from journalism into politics, which I think is a Texas politician, Jim Hightower is the only the only step down from journalism is into politics. Well, you’re right. I explained that when for me, I can, I can
Tony Abbott 3:12
remember, when I first went into politics, having been a journalist, someone gave me the poll data on the public standing of the relative public standing of journalists and politicians. And I, I noticed that I’d sank even further
Robert Bryce 3:34
below drug dealers and used car salesmen yet, right. That’s the
Unknown Speaker 3:38
Anyway, look at
Tony Abbott 3:41
journalism is a great life. And I loved my time in journalism. I was much more of a comment journalist than a reporter journalist, but But I loved my time. But in the end, I was keen to make the move because I wanted to be an executive rather than observer, right? And while good journalism is incredibly important for the long term success of our societies, in the end, if you really want to make a difference, be the man in the arena, right? Not the spectator in the stands. Sure.
Robert Bryce 4:16
You also spend a bit of time in the seminary and I was curious about that’s been a theme and Jordan Peterson talked about it yesterday, we opened the conference, and it’s something that rings true to me about this idea of calling right and so you thought about becoming a priest you’d said became went into politics. But that seems my I’m making assumptions here. But I think they seemed true to me that you feel some calling that there is a purpose here that you are pursuing that is you feel that it’s something that you’re called to do that if I tell you, am I right, right church wrong pew. How do you how do you see those good mix my metaphors here?
Tony Abbott 4:53
Well, well, Robert, I think, for me at least, it was always is important to make a difference. And for a period of my life, I thought that maybe I should make a difference in the church. I eventually decided that I was a square peg in a round hole. And I was not going to help the church or myself if I persevered. But But I still wanted to make a difference. Hence, going into journalism, and then eventually going into public life. And even though I’m no longer a member of parliament, once you’ve been a PM, you’re never really out of public life. And it’s important to continue to make a difference as best you can, even if it’s only through exercising the authority, such as it is that a former prime minister has
Robert Bryce 5:48
what makes a good politician.
Tony Abbott 5:52
Well, what makes a successful politician or what makes a good politician for that, but what what makes a good politician is character, conviction, and courage. If you’ve got judgment, and if you’ve got luck, then you might be successful. But many successful politicians are
Robert Bryce 6:17
not courageous. Look,
Tony Abbott 6:21
too many people go into politics, as if you’re like a form of career ism. And I can understand why a capable and ambitious person might think that it’d be nice if they became a senator or a congressman or a governor or even a president. But if it’s, you’ve got to be ambitious for the higher things, not just ambitious for a higher status or ambitious for a higher job. And and I, as I said, I think one of the curses of contemporary Anglosphere politics is is career ism. And in Britain, and in Australia, too many people. They they get involved in political parties very young. They then become political staffers. Or in Australia, or in the case of the Labour Party, they become activists in the union movement, right? They go into Parliament Young. There, they operate on the basis of calculation more than conviction, they often have very little experience of the real world. And the result is, I think, a polity which is more disconnected than ever, from the real world, and more out of touch with voters than ever before. And one of the reasons
Robert Bryce 7:47
is that if you don’t mind because I when you say that I live in Austin, Texas, and there was a former Lieutenant Governor, very powerful politician in Texas for many years named Bob Bullock. And he had a great line that I quite liked. He said, the business of the people cannot be delayed, right? We have to serve, we are here to do the business of the people. And yet that just that idea seems almost quaint now and speaker, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is here. And I thought what happened? It was just unbelievable. And I say that not as a partisan, I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. I’m disgusted, right? But this this very small faction just took him out of office for some kind of like, seemed like just some kind of entertainment purposes almost. And which is complete loss of underserved lack of understanding. No, you have a job to do here for the people. And instead, you’re playing these partisan petty politics at the worst possible time. Correct?
Tony Abbott 8:36
Correct. Look, we’ve seen plenty of examples of what I described as political cannibalism. People, people who should know better devouring their own. Yeah, rather than getting on with the business of being the best possible government. Yeah, or the best possible alternative government and I think it’s, it’s It’s a real pity. I should stress though, in the end, in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve or and and if the government is a disappointment, right, as I think governments typically are throughout the Anglosphere right now, if the government is a disappointment, let’s not just complain and bitch and bellyache about it, right? Let’s get involved and make a difference. And at least in Australia, both the main political parties, the Liberal National Coalition, and the Labour Party, are still moderately responsive to the membership. So get involved and make a difference. Join the political party of your choice, or at least the mainstream political party that least that you least to dislike, make it better, make it better than it is. But But remember, but remember that that not to be an absolutist and this is one of the other pros problems. In the year of social media, our, our, our national conversations have become much more fragmented and much more polarized. I mean, once upon a time, when most people got their news and their opinions from schools and universities that hadn’t been as woke propagandized as they’ve become, right, from media outlets that might have left, left or right, but we’re pretty mainstream by and large, I think there was a bigger middle, there was a larger middle there was, there was a broader consensus than, than there is today. Social media and curated news feeds have tended to create echo chambers of the left and the right. And and I think that’s, that’s unfortunate. And that’s why I, I love opinionated, courageous people. But I also like opinionated and courageous people who are on receive as well as on transmit, and are at least prepared to have an intelligent conversation right with the other side. And and again, one of the other difficulties at the moment. Is that particularly on the left, but yes, on the right, as well. Disagreement is not just a question of people having differing judgments, there is a tendency to say that the people who are on the other side aren’t just misguided, but they are morally wrong. And that’s most unfortunate as well. So. So look, these are these are dispiriting times. But our challenge is to make them better, the worse they get, the bigger the challenge, but in a sense, the higher and more important, the task to which we’re called.
Robert Bryce 11:53
Well, that’s one of the reasons why we’re here in London at the Alliance for responsible citizenship conference, the first one, and that idea of the calling that idea of trying to make a difference really seems to have resonated in this in this. I mean, I’ve been a remark there are a remarkable number of people here, right? And they all have this kind of desire to be involved and to do what, what did what did Jordan Peterson and the organizers, Philippa Stroud, and the others what they see that? Do they recognize that court? Is that why it’s resonating with so many people here? Because I’ve been to a lot of conferences, right, you know, and this is, has a different tone? Well,
Tony Abbott 12:28
there’s a, there’s a, there’s a, I think, a pronounced moral purpose to this. Now, I think it’s a genial moral purpose, non partisan one, this this is designed to be? Well, the hope is that this will be inclusive rather than exclusive. And the aspiration is to reach out rather than to close up. But nevertheless, there is a moral purpose to this. I think the organizers and most of the participants want to make a difference, not because we don’t like our fellow human beings at this time. But because we think all of us can be better. Right? And we think that, particularly given that these are difficult times, it’s important that the better angels of our nature come to the fore as quickly as possible.
Robert Bryce 13:28
But the conference clearly has a conservative bent, right? I mean, very, you know, in a Christian conservative bent, and you’re a member of the Liberal Party, which corrects my Australian politics are not not the liberals or the conservatives in Australia, which is one of the oddities of many oddities of Australian
Tony Abbott 13:44
politics years and years ago, I went as a very new member of parliament, I was taken to America by the US Information Agency on one of those kind of pleased, please love America. And the message came back from Australia to the American people, that this guy, Tony Abbott, was very anti Republican, and strongly pro liberal. Now in Australia, that meant I was a conservative, right. But in America, that meant I was a communist.
Speaker 2 14:15
And so I spent half of my time meeting radical left wing union officials in the States. We had interesting conversations. We weren’t on the same wavelength.
Tony Abbott 14:25
Anyway, but but but I’ve lost my I’ve lost lost my train of thought now. Well, this this this, this conference, is it’s respectful of our culture. It’s respectful of our culture. It it is conscious of the deep inspirations in our culture, and I suppose the deepest inspiration for the culture of the West has been the Christian faith, right? Even if we are Now a post Christian civilization in many respects. So there’s there’s a lot of respect for these things. And I guess these days that makes us at least small see conservatives if not capital, see ones, right.
Robert Bryce 15:17
What? Talk to will switch the geopolitics energy. Just last question on this conference. What is Jordan Peterson? What does he touched? What is what is it? What is the thing that he has how to use it? I have my own views on him. Right. And I was on his podcast a few months ago, and I have great admiration for him. What chord Did he touch? Why is he been so has garnered such a massive response?
Tony Abbott 15:47
Well, all of us need meaning and purpose in our life. Once upon a time, for most people, some form of religious faith filled that void, right. Jordan, I think, has given people if you’re like a secular version of that, and, and he’s a deeply spiritual man, you have to listen to him for a couple of minutes to see
Robert Bryce 16:17
this as an absolute expert, expert on the Bible, deeply
Tony Abbott 16:21
spiritual man. But he’s been able to make a whole lot of spiritual points in a non preachy way, and without wearing a clerical collar. Because if he had been wearing a clerical collar, given the contemporary spirit, people wouldn’t, wouldn’t have come. I mean, I was lucky enough to have have a meal with Jordan, about nine months or so back. And the suggestion came from Jordan that I might like to bring some of my immediate family and I brought my daughter and her husband, and another daughter and her fiance. Now they listened wrapped to Jordan’s conversation and observations. And I have to say that the sorts of things that he was saying, were the sorts of things that a couple of generations ago I heard from my Jesuit mentors, but if these had been Jesuits, my son in law and my future son in law wouldn’t have turned up, right? Because they’re very much creatures of the Zeitgeist. Right. And I’m this is not a criticism of them. They’re both wonderful human beings. But nevertheless, Jordan is, in practical terms, filling the void, the meaning void in so many young people’s lives, and he’s doing the sorts of things that once upon a time would have been more typically done by by ministers of religion.
Robert Bryce 18:07
I think that’s a really good point. I like that because the yesterday Michael Shellenberger showed the side of people, church going people, right, and I think that that decline, it’s interesting, that decline in church going in traditional religious affiliation, has has to be filled by something right? I don’t know who said it, but we
Tony Abbott 18:24
are naturally we are naturally we are people who want a meaning and purpose in life beyond ourselves, right. And traditionally, it’s been faith in God. You know, God King and Country,
Robert Bryce 18:41
right suppose and the church is a central part of that life. Yeah. And
Tony Abbott 18:44
given I suppose the lesser contemporary respect for God King and Country. Environmentalism has become a kind of a pseudo religion for some
Robert Bryce 18:56
and climate, climate and climate tourism. I think I call it climate tourism and renewable energy fetishism.
Tony Abbott 19:02
I’ve often referred to the climate cult. Not because I scornful of genuine conservation. That’s sure. I think I think that’s important. I regard myself as a conservationist. But I’m certainly not someone who thinks that we need to have make a fetish of emissions. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 19:24
Well, so let’s talk about that. One of your first moves when you came into office was the repeal of the carbon tax. And that has been bandied about for years here in the US is the perfect solution. It’s never gone anywhere. I’ll ask this way. Why did you repeal the carbon tax and why is it so politically unpopular around the world?
Tony Abbott 19:46
Well, I described the former Labour government’s carbon tax as socialism masquerading as environmentalism. A lot of economists will say that putting a price on carbon makes economic sense. I know that there were some some measures that of this kind that did work in terms of the hole in the ozone layer and right chloro fluorocarbons CFCs Yes. CFCs back in the day. But but it’s, it’s very much an artificial market, carbon pricing carbon taxing, and, and I just don’t like the creation of what I think are effectively bogus bullshit markets, which can be, which can be so easily wrought, rotted and ramped. Right. And what we see, so so much of an energy policy at the moment is is things that distort the market, right, distort the real market. I mean, why do we have so many renewables in our system today? Not because they’re genuinely cheap, because they always have to be backed up right or firmed. But because there’s this absolute plethora of subsidies and mandates and things, which, which are really making ordinary people’s life much more wretched than it should be, by putting power prices through the roof by putting a real question mark over the reliability of our energy supplies, in Western countries, and driving energy intensive sectors, to countries like China and India, where they often pay lip service to the whole emissions thing. But they never let reducing emissions get in the way of, of doing the right thing as they see it by their economies and by their people. Roger
Robert Bryce 22:09
Pilkey calls that the iron law of climate, which is that when forced choose between economic growth and reductions in emissions, politicians will always choose economic growth. And that’s what we see.
Tony Abbott 22:19
But that’s not that’s not true of us in the West. It is it is true of the Indians and the Chinese. And the third and what used to be called the third world more generally, they will never put emissions reduction in right ahead of economic growth, but because this has become a quasi religion, because it’s become a matter of faith. Not reason, right? In our countries, certainly in Australia, certainly in Britain and in large parts of Europe. Yes, yes. While politicians have said that, actually, there are going to be so many green jobs, that this is gonna be good for you, having been conned for two decades by this. This this complete falsehood for going from reliable, affordable, largely fossil fuel based power supplies to intermittent wind and solar power on a massive scale. I mean, yeah, it has consistently absolutely consistently put prices up and reliability down because wind and solar is only cheap, when the sun is shining, and the wind is blowing, which is roughly 30% of the time, right?
Robert Bryce 23:34
So respectfully, how did Australia get their electricity market? So screwed up? I mean, I’m looking at it from the States. And I’ve been to Australia a couple times. But you’re in many times, you’re having your power prices, over 50 cents a kilowatt hour, your reliability has gone down dramatically, your your dynamiting your coal plants, you’re not. You’re relying more heavily on renewables. I look at Australian I think what the hell, you’re selling all kinds of coal into the Asian market in Japan and China, but you’re not burning it yourselves. And you can’t get you can’t get the repeal of nuclear going what? Tell me the top three things that are brewing in Australia. I guess I’ll ask it that way.
Tony Abbott 24:12
Well, well, you’ve got one side of politics, which has succumb to the green left of obsessions, the Labour Party. Yep. And you’ve got another side of politics, which is profoundly skeptical of all of that liberal Liberal Party is the Liberal National Coalition, but not very courageous in taking practical steps. To put forward an alternative, that’s the that’s the dispiriting truth.
Robert Bryce 24:44
Now came back to that courage and courage when I
Tony Abbott 24:47
mean, I’m in my government was very clear eyed about all of this. But even my government I found it very difficult, despite winning a thumping majority in the lower house. And despite winning, I thought, a clear mandate to end the emissions obsession. We found it very difficult to get legislation through our Senate. Because the green left and allies on the crossbench made it extremely difficult to reduce things like renewable energy targets, reduce kind of climate boondoggles government funds set up to invest in supposedly clean green technologies and so on. So look, we’ve, as I said, we get back to the, to the, to the basic issues of conviction and courage and too many politicians on the center, right, have not had much conviction. And even those that have had conviction, have tended to lack the courage of their convictions and to do I suppose to be fair to people, when the zeitgeist is against you, when the official establishment has been captured by so much of this green left ideology, it is difficult, it’s very difficult and and to push back, it’s hard to push back and to push back against the official establishment requires great conviction, great courage, supreme intellectual self confidence, and, and, and and a long tenure in office. And in the case of Britain, the current Conservative government and in the case of Australia with the recently departed, departed Liberal National Government, the revolving door Prime Ministership meant a massive turnover of ministries as well. Right. And almost no one has had long enough to get their feet under the desk, let alone to push back seriously, right on the woke left.
Robert Bryce 27:13
So maybe, that maybe that explains why Rishi Sunak as soon as he comes back into office, I mean, Liz, tres, was in office for what is a cup of coffee, right? Yeah. And then he comes back, and she repeals the ban on fracking, and he puts it back in place, which, to me is just beyond crazy town. But but let’s talk about China. You’ve and you famously had a few words with Vladimir Putin. I’ve heard it described in various ways that somewhat colorful. What do you think Putin’s? Well, let me ask the question this way. Is the world more dangerous now than any time in your recent memory? Is it and is it more dangerous in actuality? Are we just hearing about
Tony Abbott 27:52
an annoyance? It is a very dangerous world?
Robert Bryce 27:54
I mean, and so what’s what it was just more in the wake of Hamas has a tan does this all push China, Russia and Iran closer together? And is that the new block and and then members of OPEC as well, on that side? How do you see things today, as opposed to before October 7,
Tony Abbott 28:12
you’ve got two very powerful countries, Russia and China, which are set on ending what they see as historical humiliations. And in Russia’s case, Vladimir Putin sees himself on a mission from God to recreate the Russia of Peter the Great, and that means it extinguishing Ukraine as an independent country. And if he succeeds in Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland will be next. And you’ve got Xi Jinping, who is quite public, in his ambitions, first of all, to dominate the region and second to become the global Hagerman within 30 years. And the immediate objective is to take Taiwan by force if necessary. So you’ve got two very dangerous flashpoints. One of which is now the most destructive war since 1945. And the other could erupt at any minute. And then you’ve got the ongoing Islamism in the middle east of which October the seventh is the latest and most horrific recent manifestation. Now, these are existential challenges, in many respects. In an era when we, as a sort of a popular culture, had thought existential challenges had passed, I mean, after the fall of the Berlin The Wall and the proclamation by people like Fukuyama at the end of history and the demand from electorates for a peace dividend. There has been this general view that other countries think like us, the other leaders, if they say belligerent things that just bluffing, really they think like us, and they wouldn’t dare do that do it, right. The truth is that there are many, many powerful people who would do deeply evil things, if they thought they could get away with it. And unfortunately, the gradual erosion of American and America’s allies resolve and power and self confidence has given people like Putin and Xi plus the Islamists in their various forms, it’s it’s given them reason to think that they can get away with a lot more than they ever could before.
Robert Bryce 31:01
Well, let’s, let’s follow up on that. Because I’m, you know, I’m from the US, I’m adamantly pro us. I’m a homer all the way. But you so you see this, if I’m going to read that back to you see, this is this these conflicts? And what we’ve seen just lately is partly a reaction to a weakened America or distracted America, or just how do you see, let me ask that, is it because of a weakened American? How do you see President Biden, I have my own criticisms, I think he’s simply too old for the job. And I don’t know that he’s competent to respond. Now, given all the complexities facing him. But how do you see it?
Tony Abbott 31:37
I’m a bit Reagan esque. In that, I think America is still in a sense, a shining city on a hill. And not withstanding the current political fragmentation and the current economic and military issues. America is still by a vast margin, the most powerful country in the world and a massive force for good, no one, but America has the strength and the benevolence to be the world’s policeman and the world doesn’t need a policeman, as we see. So clearly, right now. But there is no doubt that the humiliating scuttle from cabal gave encouragement to America’s strategic opponents, the the the uncertain arming of Ukraine, likewise, I think has given encouragement to America’s opponents. I mean, the Ukrainians have been supported not to lose, right, but they haven’t been supported sufficiently to win. And, and, again, I can understand the reasoning. No one wants to provoke World war three. Right. And, and I think we, we have finally woken up to the real nature of the Putin regime in Russia. And there’s a sense in which Putin can’t afford to lose, and he’ll escalate until he wins. But then
Robert Bryce 33:10
it’s going to be enormous, enormous cost,
Tony Abbott 33:13
but you you can’t be bluffed by evil. You You can’t let a well armed dictator, bluff you out of defending what absolutely has to be defended and preserved. So So look, I think there are, there are there are all sorts of things happening at the moment. And I don’t say that there are any easy answers. And I don’t say that there won’t be very difficult times ahead. But that if we don’t, if we aren’t strong in the face of danger, the times will be even worse. That’s the problem.
Robert Bryce 34:00
So I know you need to go here. So two quick last questions I ask of all my podcast guests. So what are you reading? What books are you reading? Who do you what’s on the top of your list these days?
Tony Abbott 34:13
Well, not enough. And I tend to read the books that I’ve been asked to review. So the book I’m currently almost finished his collection of essays from people like Conrad black, the American historian whose name is on the tip of my tongue. It’s called against the great reset, and it’s part of the inspiration for this this conference. And the next book I’ll read is a book about a former Australian politician because I got to review that as well. So that’s the stuff that I am. But but the stuff I would encourage the listeners to to read, we need to be more familiar with our own history. And we need to be more familiar with the great and deep inspirations of our civilization. So, please, everyone read Winston Churchill’s History of the English speaking peoples then read Andrew Roberts History of the English speaking peoples in the 20th century. Because a it’s a great story. And be it’s well told. And then look, I just think everyone should sit down and read the New Testament from cover to cover. I don’t do it often enough, I’ve got to say, but I have done it a couple of times in my life. And it’s always a source of of uplift, inspiration, and insight.
Robert Bryce 35:49
Last question, what gives you hope.
Tony Abbott 35:53
Two things have given me hope recently. First, the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people. Ukraine hasn’t had anything like the experience of freedom that we’ve had. But they are determined to to preserve their national freedom and independence at almost unbearable costs, but they’re determined to do it. And I think that’s inspiring. The reaction to the death of Her Majesty, the Queen gave me great hope, because that was a life of exemplary duty and service. She wasn’t always appreciated when she was alive. But by God, we suddenly knew what we’d lost once she’d gone.
Robert Bryce 36:41
So the death of the Queen gives you hope, or the response of the people to her
Tony Abbott 36:46
death, correct? Correct. Correct. Interesting. Well,
Robert Bryce 36:49
this has been great fun. My guest has been the former Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott. Thanks a million for your time. And thanks to all of you in podcast land for tuning into this episode of the power hungry podcast. Make sure to tune into the next episode. It might be as good as this one. Until then, see you