The Abbott Interview 25 March 2010 – Time for a Rematch

Abbott on the road

Campaign launch – but where are we?

Tony Abbot did a sort-of not-quite softish launch of the Coalition election campaign this weekend, but try as I might, I can’t find anything in it for us. Nothing about discrimination, marriage, civil unions, social inclusion, sex-ed, anti-bullying . . 

So I’m doing two things. I’m reposting the transcript of his interview with me back in March 2010. It’s one of the few sources we have when trying to unravel his position on LBTI issues. Plus, when he talks to me again (fingers crossed) we can see how far he has ‘evolved’ over the last two years. 

The second is to ask his office for a new interview. That will give him the opportunity to spell out all the gay stuff he forgot in the weekend launch.



DOUG POLLARD: The Leader of the Opposition TONY Abbott joins us on the line now. Good morning Mr Abbott.

TONY ABBOTT:G’day Doug. How are you?

DOUG POLLARD: I’m really well. Now a lot, a lot of people have called into me saying what did Mr Abbott mean when he said he felt threatened by us?

TONY ABBOTT: Well Doug, look, it was obviously a very poor choice of words.

DOUG POLLARD: You can say that again.

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah look it was a poor choice of words. Look, I think blokes of my generation and upbringing do sometimes find these things a bit confronting. Anything that’s different can be a bit challenging, but the truth is that as we get older we mellow, we appreciate that homosexuality is a fact of life. People close to me are gay and I’d like to think that it hasn’t made me love them any the less or treat them differently. So, look, it was a poor choice of words but unfortunately in the rough and tumble of a pretty willing television interview you sometimes come out with things that if you were considering your words more carefully you wouldn’t say.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, one of the things that has been brought up again and again by listeners and I’ll quote one here from one listener who’d like to know if you’re feeling threatened by any other subcultures? Would you have felt free to say the same kind of thing, for example, about Muslims or Jews or blacks or whatever?

TONY ABBOTT: Don’t forget, Doug, that, you know, I’m a 52 year-old bloke from a fairly traditional background. I imbibed orthodox Catholic treat . . . er …

DOUG POLLARD: I think ‘treatment’ is a good word, Tony.

TONY ABBOTT: …teaching in my youth and it takes time to I suppose come to a more balanced and nuanced understanding of these things, but, look, as I said, I have a number of gay people who are very close to me and without wanting to pretend that I am perfect, or that I will never again be guilty of sensitivity crimes, I do think Doug that I am pretty good at taking people as I find them however surprised I might sometimes be by different aspects of their life.

DOUG POLLARD: You see the problem with using the word ‘threatened’ is that you’re quite right, a lot of men of your generation do express a feeling of threat in the presence of homosexuality; the trouble is they tend to act on that feeling of threat with violence and in a sense what you said could be seen as legitimising that reaction.

TONY ABBOTT: No, absolutely not. I mean, however surprised or even dismayed we might be about things that are not things we’re familiar with, it is an absolute obligation on all of us to treat people with fairness, with decency, with acceptance, and ultimately the point that I make is that I do have a number of people who are very close to me who are gay and I’d be…

DOUG POLLARD: Tony, this is the old you know ‘some of my best friends are gay’ defence, isn’t it?

TONY ABBOTT: …and it sounds like a terrible cliché and the last thing I want to do is name them on the programme but…

DOUG POLLARD: Oh, I’ll do that for you. I know Tim Wilson quite well and his partner.

TONY ABBOTT: Yep, and look Michael Kirby has been a friend and at times a bit of a mentor to me. Christopher Pearson has been a very, very close friend of mine for a long, long time now and then there are others of course who would probably prefer not to be named but the truth is that don’t hang me, please, Doug for an ill-chosen word…

DOUG POLLARD: I’m just offering you some rope, Tony.

TONY ABBOTT: …and don’t hang me for the fact that yes I am quite a conservative bloke, I do have a traditional background but it doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of appreciating the complexity of modern life and the nuances of peoples’ circumstances.

DOUG POLLARD: Well we do have a problem in the gay community in that we have extremely high rates of suicide and self-harm among our young people because of the expressed homophobia, because they tend to be shunned and cut off from the general community, particularly in regional and rural areas as we’ve been hearing when the guest who was on before you. So I think you understand why people reacted the way they did to your remarks and I accept, as you say, that you made a poor choice of words but you’ve mentioned various fairly well known people that are gay that you know. Have you spent much time actually visiting gay organisations, getting to know the gay community as it is nowadays on the ground?

TONY ABBOTT: I think it would be fair to say that I haven’t, but certainly in the last couple of weeks I’ve had quite a lengthy chat to Corey Irlam who is one of the leading spokesmen for the gay community, and I certainly would intend to maintain a dialogue and without I suppose being other than who I am I would want to take all these concerns seriously and wherever possible address them.

DOUG POLLARD: The other thing that makes people perhaps in our community a little bit nervous of you is your religion, your close association in particular with Cardinal Pell and the kind of things that come out of people like Cardinal Pell and Pope Benedict about gays and lesbians and about the gay and lesbian community. We’ve been called intrinsically disordered, evil, various other things and you make no secret of the fact that you take counsel from people like Cardinal Pell in the course of your everyday life.

TONY ABBOTT: Doug, look could I make two points. The first is that George Pell is a vastly more compassionate man than is normally the stereotype. He is a very pastoral priest and I can personally say that I have taken issues to him in my own life and had a very compassionate and considered response that isn’t just a throw the catechism at it kind of response. Now, sure, as the Archbishop, he’s got to reiterate the Catholic teaching but I don’t think anyone should think that they would get anything other than a warm, human response from George Pell the man.

DOUG POLLARD: I think again we come down to…this is a question that someone has sent in to me, thank you very much to Luke, who’s said what we really need to do here is get to grips with the difference between Tony Abbott the man and Tony Abbott the leader of the Liberal Party because you are to some extent constrained by your own party in what you can do, aren’t you?

TONY ABBOTT: Well that’s true. Look, the other point, Doug, I should make is of course the traditional teaching of the church is often expressed in ways which people find alienating and I don’t like that any more than you do. I think, though, if you read the Gospels, as opposed to necessarily read papal encyclicals, you’ll find a religion and a Jesus who wants us to have life and have it unto the full and unfortunately this sometimes gets translated into dry legalisms and that’s a real pity, but I don’t think the church is out there to judge and condemn, or it shouldn’t be out there to judge and condemn, it should be out there to help and to liberate and that I think is the proper conception of Christianity.

DOUG POLLARD: I think you’re probably right. As you say, again, we’re making another division here between what Christianity is and what the church is and I would have very strong doubts as to whether one could really call the Catholic church particularly Christian in some of its behaviour but we won’t go down that line. I want to come on now to questions of policy and questions of what you would and wouldn’t support in terms of policy to get rid of the remaining discrimination against the gay and lesbian community.


DOUG POLLARD: Now, there is a big push on within our community for a federal anti-discrimination law. Where would you stand on that one?

TONY ABBOTT: Well we did in 2008, as a Coalition, support the legislation removing discrimination against same sex couples in federal laws. I mean, we supported that and the Liberal Party is against all forms of discrimination. That’s our general principle. Now, I…

DOUG POLLARD: Well, when you were federal Health Minister you didn’t include same sax couples in the Medicare Safety Net – that was discriminatory.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, we didn’t change that aspect of the law but it was pre-existing law, it wasn’t new law by us. So while you could say with justice, Doug, that that particular law was not changed by us, it wasn’t introduced by us and if we had been introducing a law in my time it wouldn’t have been in those terms.

DOUG POLLARD: Ok, well we’ll let you get away with that one for now. We’re talking on Freshly DOUG here on Joy 94.9 with the federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and as soon as we finish the interview we will be putting it up on podcast as well.

Tony, I’ve got a question here from Doctor Jo Harrison who’s a gerontologist based in Adelaide. She says if you become Australia’s Prime Minister will you introduce policies that recognise GLBTI elders as a special needs group in aged care so that people can live out their final days free from fear and proud to be themselves?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, look Doug, this is a new issue for me and I would probably want to consider how that is best done in practice before being prescriptive. Now, obviously you don’t want to see people who love each other and care for each other and who have been living together for years to be separated in their old age. I mean, obviously, that is a most unfortunate thing and what I would want to see is a practice that works for people and before I say yes to any particular mandatory system I guess I’d want to consider how we get the practice right, how we best get the practice right.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, can I make you one…make one suggestion to you and see how this one flies? There was recently a press release from the LGBTI National Health Alliance pointing out that all sorts of groups within Australia society, whether it’s people with a disability, regional and rural people, young people, seniors, women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they have a minister in the government, they have an advisory group, they have a departmental unit, there is a national strategy. There is nothing like that for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Would you be up for having an LGBTI Minister in your Cabinet?

TONY ABBOTT: Again Doug, being a conservative, I’m more in favour of getting the practice right than in creating more process and more bureaucracy. Now, my door would certainly be open to everyone with a reasonable case to make and I think that is a better way to handle things by and large than establishing a whole lot of formalised structures which can easily just become talkfests. I suppose I would want to be told what the problems are, how they are best fixed and to try to address that and then henceforth have an open door to people who are keeping tabs on the situation.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, as we said before, one way you could start would be by supporting a federal antidiscrimination law. Would you do that?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, as I said, if the law is there I would be very happy to look at it. The Coalition, as I understand it, has supported the introduction of legislation to extend protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity to the Commonwealth level. I mean, my understanding is that we have supported that. I’m not aware that there is any particular bit of legislation before the parliament at this time.

DOUG POLLARD: But if there was, would you continue with what seems to be your approach to your job as Leader of the Opposition of opposing everything the Government does or would you take a bipartisan approach and come on board with it?

TONY ABBOTT: I’ve always said, Doug, that we’ll support good law, we’ll oppose bad law, but we’ll scrutinise all law. So I guess we’d want to scrutinise it, we’d want to be careful that it didn’t have unintended consequences, we’d want to be sure that it would in practice work out for the best, because so many well-intentioned laws can have obnoxious consequences, and having done all of that I’d see no reason why we couldn’t support it, but we would need to see it and we would need to subject it to the kind of quality control that good oppositions should always apply.

DOUG POLLARD: But in principle you’re not against the idea?

TONY ABBOTT: That’s correct. I’m not against it in principle.

DOUG POLLARD: So, in principle if it was a good antidiscrimination act on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender diversity etcetera you would support it?

TONY ABBOTT: In principle I would support it.

DOUG POLLARD: Thank you.

TONY ABBOTT: There you go, that wasn’t too hard, was it?

DOUG POLLARD: We got there in the end. I feel a little bit like a dentist, but…

TONY ABBOTT: Well please apply the anaesthetic.

DOUG POLLARD: Now, here comes a contentious one which I suppose… I think I know what your answer is going to be. We have removed a lot of discrimination against gay and lesbian people in this country; the Government brought in these 85 laws, there was general support for that. The big issue nowadays is of course around marriage. Now, you have spoken in the past about, you know, you don’t see that gay relationships are any less in terms of quality than marriages, but that they simply can’t be marriages. So, I guess there’s no point in asking you if you would support equal marriage across the country because I know what the answer’s going to be, but would you…

TONY ABBOTT: You’ve done your research well, Doug.

DOUG POLLARD: But would you support a federal relationships recognition act which covered the whole country, which gave us the equivalent of marriage?

TONY ABBOTT: In principle, yes. I am in favour of stable, enduring relationships. I’m in favour of people keeping their commitments to people. Now, I would be very sympathetic to some institutional arrangement which encouraged that across the board rather than in just what might be described as the more common or more traditional contexts.

DOUG POLLARD: I’m not quite sure I understood what that reply meant, really, but…

TONY ABBOTT: Well, what it meant is that I would like to see a way for gay relationships to be celebrated, acknowledged and recognised, but precisely how that is best done I think needs to discussed widely obviously, but the general point you make, Doug, is a correct one. I think that marriage is, dare I say it, between a man and a woman, hopefully for life and there are all sorts of other relationships which should be appreciated and acknowledged and recognised, but I don’t know that they can be recognised as marriage.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, your good mate Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs has proposed a solution to this which he calls competitive marriage whereby the government would recognise a certain base sort of standard for a marriage contract which it would administer but religious institutions and so on and so forth would be free to create their own additional conditions on top of that and administer those marriages themselves. He calls it ‘competitive marriage’. Now, that’s in line with good Liberal free market principles isn’t it?

TONY ABBOTT: Look it is and while Tim and I have had a couple of brief discussions about this, we haven’t had a lengthy sit down about it. I am open to these possibilities, but at the same time I’m also keen to defend traditional marriage as well. Now, I don’t see why the two are incompatible because, as I said, what I would like to see is a society where stable enduring relationships are encouraged, where people keep their commitments to other people. That’s what I’d like to see.

DOUG POLLARD: But you don’t really know how to go about it at this point? Other than marriage?

TONY ABBOTT: I know that in other countries there are civil unions legislation, there is domestic partnership legislation and so on. I am very happy to look at that Doug, although obviously it would have to be widely discussed in the community and it would have to be discussed within the Liberal Party and the Coalition before it could become our formal policy.

DOUG POLLARD: Ok, well you might have a bit of an uphill struggle with some of the members of your party, I think. But you’d be willing to take it on?

TONY ABBOTT: See, Doug, the point I make is that it is a very conservative position to want to encourage stable, enduring relationships. Now what conservatism needs to do is to apply enduring values to the new reality of our time. Now, in our time obviously the way people live is different to the way they might have lived hundreds of years ago and it’s important that we find ways of encouraging those enduring values in the different contexts of today.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, the enduring values are all very well, Tony, but I mean the latest polling that we have on this subject from the Galaxy poll, is that 85 per cent support anti-discrimination legislation, 60 per cent support equal marriage rights, so one would have to say you might well be on a winner if you went down that line. But, before we move on from there, while we are talking about marriage and relationships and things I want to talk just briefly about adoption and surrogacy and gay couples adopting children. What’s your position on those issues?

TONY ABBOTT: I’d be cautious on this one Doug. I accept that it happens but nevertheless…

DOUG POLLARD: But you’re not enthusiastic by the sounds of things?

TONY ABBOTT: I’m not for the simple reason that I think that ideally a child should have a mother and a father. Now, if for whatever reason a mother and a father aren’t available, fine. I think it’s important that the child has people who love him or her and who are committed and are going to do the right thing by the child.

DOUG POLLARD: Which gay couples are perfectly capable of doing.

TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely right.

DOUG POLLARD: Sexuality has nothing to do with parenting ability.

TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely right.

DOUG POLLARD: There are many, many straight couples who have children by accident and treat them appallingly.

TONY ABBOTT: Exactly right. I completely agree with you. But, nevertheless in principle or ideally, I think it’s good that there be a mother and a father involved. But, I completely take your point that there is no reason why a gay couple can’t provide just as much love and affection and support as a child as any other couple.

DOUG POLLARD: Ok, a question has come in from a listener here. ‘A prominent conservative, Nick Minchin, has announced he is going to be retiring at the next election and there is speculation that his place could be taken by Eric Abetz. That would be replacing one homophobe with another.’ Are you likely to go down that route?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I’ll leave that to the Liberal Party Room. But, again I think it would be unfair to characterize either Nick or Eric as homophobes. I mean they are…

DOUG POLLARD: Well, Eric Abetz’ record isn’t particularly good on that line.

TONY ABBOTT: But again, Doug, Eric is a very decent human being and I would be very surprised if any person has ever been treated differently by Eric on the basis of sexuality.

DOUG POLLARD: It just seems to me that you have a great opportunity there to make a shift in your cabinet to be something more gay friendly and shall we say, let’s not be too kind here and say get rid of some of the dinosaurs you’ve got hanging around?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, but again, I think that far better than ‘getting rid of the dinosaurs’ is to try to appreciate that modern conservatism is a much more embracing doctrine or philosophy or system of values than many people suppose. One of the reasons why, for argument’s sake Doug, I’ve embraced a comprehensive national paid parental leave scheme is because I think that a modern conservative philosophy acknowledges that if your going to be fair dinkum about the family it can’t just be the so called traditional family, where dad is at work and mum is pregnant in the kitchen with the kids.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, actually one of our listeners, Jordan James just messaged in, hearing you talking about that. He said, ‘ask him that seeing as how you are so ready to betray your parties core principles by taxing big business to create your maternity leave scheme, how can we trust you not to betray any of your other promises?’

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I think that’s a pretty aggressive question and I don’t believe that I have betrayed any of the Liberal party’s core principles. If others want to disagree well fine but let’s have the discussion rather than just make the accusation.

DOUG POLLARD: Well, that’s what we are trying today Tony and I want to thank you very much for joining us today and giving us some of your time. I hope it wont be the last time we talk and I hope you will be able to take time to meet with some gay communities organisations and get to know us as a community, because we always find that when you get to know us as people rather than as clichés I think you know that we are not the picture that’s painted by Mardi Gras and the likes.

TONY ABBOTT: Sure. Look, I take that point Doug, but again don’t assume I don’t know gay people.

DOUG POLLARD: I don’t from what you’ve said.

TONY ABBOTT: …and don’t assume that there is caricature in my mind that is entirely represented by some of the floats on the Mardi Gras. I mean, that’s not my position. But look, I’m very happy to come on again and incidentally I think I am going to a function of one of the local gay and lesbian groups in my electorate in the next few weeks.

DOUG POLLARD: Well it’s a good start Tony. I’ve just had a message here from our general manager at the station who would like to issue an open invitation for you to visit the studios at any time and meet the volunteers here.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, thank you so much Doug and hopefully I’ll get a chance to take that up on a forthcoming trip to Melbourne.


So far Mr Abbott hasn’t taken us up on the invitation to visit. Soon, eh, Tony? Thanks. His email.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)