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It’s all Kerry O’Brien’s fault

Australia has lost its ability to have constructive, informed and ambitious national conversations. In this guest post David Frizzell wonders how much of our malaise can be traced back to four embarrassing minutes in the public life of our Prime Minister.

Tony Abbott’s lengthy press conference on Monday fell a long way short of achieving its purpose for the government. Far from drawing a line under the coalition’s growing list of woes, putting to bed their political demons before parliament rises for the Christmas break, it simply served to highlight the virulent disposition of this government that made such a desperate press conference necessary in the first place.

Some of the language we heard from the Prime Minister on Monday was reminiscent of his May 2010 interview with Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report. When Abbott this week uttered the words, ‘On the subject of broken promises, I accept that what we’re doing with the ABC is at odds with what I said immediately prior to the election,’ we were reminded of his mauling at the hands of O’Brien.

In that interview O’Brien was taking Abbott to task over his position reversal on the subject of paid parental leave. Abbott had made a complete about-face on the issue within a month and offered to the 7.30 audience, ‘it wasn’t absolutely consistent with what I’d said’.

‘It was the opposite,’ interjected O’Brien.

The interview then spiralled horribly out of control for Abbott who went on to stammer and bumble his way through, eventually uttering the now infamous ‘Gospel Truth’ defence.

If only someone with the spine and intellect of O’Brien were given a microphone and position next to Abbott on Monday to insert a level of truth and perspective into his Clayton’s attempt to come clean to the electorate. As if.

It’s worth reflecting on that interview from 2012 in light of Abbott’s subsequent behaviour. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that interview was the turning point in Tony Abbott’s relationship with Australia.

After receiving such a public mauling in the O’Brien interview, Tony Abbott, the then PM aspirant, could have learned a number of valuable lessons. He might have learned that it’s important to take a clear and honest position on significant matters and pursue them loyally. He might have learned that some sections of the media will hold him to account for the things he says and the things he does – and the difference between the two. He might have learned of the importance of simply being honest, no matter how uncomfortable.

But no, not Tony Abbott. What he learned from that interview was the importance of being tricky and deceitful, the usefulness of inserting an object of plausible deniability – no matter how absurd – into every situation. It taught him to be reliant on obfuscation when confronted by uncomfortable questions. It made him determined to deny everything no matter the evidence to the contrary. But most of all, it steeled his already ideologically intrenched determination to dismantle the ABC at the earliest possibility.

Rather than reflect on that embarrassing lesson in a way that could help him become a man of integrity, Abbott took a step deeper into the dark side. And he took us with him. With Abbott as a prominent figure in Australian public life – as Opposition Leader and now as PM – we have lost the ability to have constructive national conversations that are informed by facts and context, pollinated with ideas and dreams.

Imagine an alternate universe. Imagine if Abbott came clean in that interview and had a conversation with O’Brien about the reason for his about-face. It may have sparked a wider conversation, supported by research, about the benefits of paid parental leave. We may have talked about findings into the relative merits of parental leave and child care support.

The subsequent national conversation may have drilled into the true motivation for Abbott’s new commitment. Was it really an effort to boost female participation in the workforce? If so, what do the experts say about the barriers to parents returning to work? Who should pay for it? Why was child care being ignored as a factor? Is there an element of conservative ideology flavouring the policy? If so, what is the competing ideology of the Labor party? What do the Greens and independents have to contribute to the conversation?

And what effect could a quality conversation about such an issues have on our country? Parental leave might have been the perfect place to start. Perhaps we’d develop a collective skill. Perhaps the Australian public would develop a little more interest in the substance of what is being discussed. Perhaps we’d get better at consulting professionals in relevant fields.

Then imagine the knock-on effect a deft ability to have comprehensive conversations might have on the other issues plaguing our national consciousness: asylum-seekers, mandatory detention, climate change, renewable energy, our response to the treat of terrorism at home and abroad, domestic violence, media ownership, privacy…

But that’s not what happened. We didn’t wake up the next morning discussing the merits of paid parental leave versus alternate ideas. We woke up the following morning aghast at the squirming dishonesty, chuckling at the mother of all ‘got ya’ interviews.

In response, Abbott made a pact with himself to never again be exposed in such a way.

Since August 2012 Abbott has limited himself, almost exclusively, to the on-air company of ideological allies such as Channel 10’s Andrew Bolt and 2GB’s Alan Jones. Apart from a couple of puff pieces – most notably Chris Uhlumann’s impotent matey catch-up on 7.30 in September this year – Abbott has hardly been sited on Australia’s most trusted source of information.

The reason for the Abbott government’s inherent dishonesty is obvious: when your true agenda would be so morally unpalatable to the vast majority of your constituents you have to either tone it down or lie pathologically.

We all know which way our current government and their allies have decided to go. The neo-conservative power players – the Abbott government, the IPA and the Murdoch press – have nothing to gain and everything to lose from informed national debate.

Abbott as PM has been a destructive embarrassment to himself, his party and our nation. He possesses not only a bitter determination to pursue a cruel ideology and to silence his critics, but a determination to deny everything – even when the evidence against him is comprehensive and tangible.

We now have a Prime Minister who is willing to deny the existence of the nose on his face. We’re left to wonder just how instrumental in the destruction of our national conversation was that four minutes of seat-shifting, stammering tomfoolery with Kerry O’Brien in 2012.


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  1. Pauline Westwood

    It appears you don’t know the difference between ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative.’ I am pretty sure you meant ‘alternative’ in this article. ‘Alternate’ means ‘every second’ – eg. alternate days.

  2. Kaye Lee

    alternate: being a second or further choice; another term for alternative. eg “a novel set in an alternate universe”

  3. Kaye Lee

    TONY ABBOTT: “I think Christopher said ‘schools’ – plural – will get the same amount of money. The quantum will be the same.”

    ANDREW BOLT: “I hear that. ‘Schools’, plural. People just saw the grab. They heard ‘school’, your ‘school’, singular, and I don’t understand why that promise was made. I would go a billion dollars into debt just to keep your promise. I don’t know why you don’t commit to it.”

    TONY ABBOTT: “But Andrew, we are going to keep our promise. We are going to keep the promise that we actually made, not the promise that some people thought that we made or the promise that some people might have liked us to make. We’re going to keep the promise that we actually made.”

    –Ten Network, The Bolt Report, 1 December 2013

    Even Bolt knows Abbott’s a liar

  4. Kaye Lee

    JOHN LAWS: “Marriage is a tradition of very long standing and I like tradition and I think it is very important for a country like Australia to abide by some of those traditions.”

    TONY ABBOTT: “I’m not saying that our culture and our traditions are perfect. But we have to respect them and my idea is to build on the strength of our society and I support by and large evolutionary change. I’m not someone who wants to see radical changes based on the fashion of the moment.”

    -interviewed by John Laws, Radio 2SM, Sydney, 14 August 2013

    A few days later, journalist Paul Bongiorno asked Abbott whether he still thought same-sex marriage was a fad. Abbott said: “Well, that’s not what I said, Paul.”

  5. Kaye Lee

    REPORTER: “Can you guarantee there won’t be a Medicare co-payment?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “Nothing is being considered, nothing has been proposed, nothing is planned.”

    -Joint doorstop interview with Bill Glasson, Brisbane, 1 February 2014

    REPORTER: “Would you consider a co-payment, a means testing to help relieve the pressure on the health budget?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “Obviously the budget, generally, is under pressure and it’s very important that we do what we can to fix the budget, as quickly as we can, but we’ve got to do it in ways which are consistent with our pre-election commitments. Don’t forget, I said we were going to be a no surprises, no excuses government.”

    REPORTER: “In light of the latest scare campaign however, can’t you just knock it on the head, pull the rug out from under Labor’s scare campaign and guarantee no co-payments?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “Well I think I have knocked the scare campaign on the head and again this is all the Labor Party has got.”

    REPORTER: “But what would be wrong with the co-payments? Surely there are arguments in favour of it?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “I’ve dealt with this issue. Now, are there other questions?”

    -Doorstop interview, Sydney, 20 February 2014

  6. Möbius Ecko

    What is the change to same sex marriage if not evolutionary (in the meaning he inferred). Hasn’t this been a long slow hard fought over change since 1901 after all? I would hardly call that radical or revolutionary, nor a fashion of the moment.

    If Abbott thinks that’s not evolutionary and is a fashion of the moment then so is heterosexual marriage, especially since marriage between a man and a woman was only implemented as a revolutionary law in this country by Howard in recent years.

  7. Janet

    I think its much more blatant – reduce the ABC’s funding then everytime they say something negative about you – trot out the sour grapes response and make them out to be unfair meanies – works for Abort every time.

  8. Kaye Lee

    This interview with Laurie Oakes was also great. The whole thing is worth the read to remind yourself of how Abbott continually changes his stance and then tries to wriggle out of it. One example…

    LO: But you know that the asylum seeker boats don’t affect the population, because refugees who arrive that way are taken off the top of our program, so it’s got no impact on population. Now, let me put this to you. In January, you said, “There’s no reason to think that Australia has a fixed caring capacity. My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible, the freedom and benefits of life in Australia.”

    TA: Of course, I said that. But the point is, – the point is Laurie, recent immigration numbers have been unsustainably high…

    LO: But that was only January?

  9. Kaye Lee

    REPORTER: “Did you claim travel expenses on your book tour?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “I did not.”

    -8 July 2013

    REPORTER: “Why did you use Comcars on your book tour? Surely you would have known when you were using the Comcars that you were on private business?”

    ABBOTT: “Fully dealt with last year.”

    REPORTER: “Do you take responsibility for the mistake?”

    ABBOTT: “I think I’ve fully dealt with it. Time to move on.”

    -9 July 2013

  10. Pudd'nhead

    What do you do with a man incapable of uniting his thoughts to put forth argument with well founded, well thought out comment UNAFFECTED by ideological cant, messy hubris and convenient obfuscation. You could try him as PM of this sad country but then we have already tried that with our present beloved leader. If there is a supreme being we must hope she/he will deliver us from this blip, this aberration, this imposition on the body politic, an unfortunate burden and mistake. The very survival of the Australian community, built painstakingly since Eureka and federation is in danger while ever the current Conservative Push is allowed its unfettered way. Past Conservative governments were ambitious for the health and happiness of the whole populace. The present mob seem to perceive us as enemies to be conquered.

  11. Kaye Lee

    REPORTER: “You said abortion was the easy way out in 2004. Do you still think that’s the case?”

    TONY ABBOTT: “What I said in 2004 was that abortion should be safe, legal and rare and I think that’s the way it should be.”

    -8 January 2013

    In 2004, Abbott had actually said this:

    “Abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardy surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations.”

    -Address to the Adelaide University Democratic Club, Union Hall, University of Adelaide, 16 March 2004

  12. selwyn smith

    I couldn’t agree more. The neoliberal ideology Abbott so strongly endorses ensures the gap between rich and poor expands exponentially. The opportunities become more lopsided as the less fortunate find their number of chances are so much fewer. Under neoliberalism the richer you are the greater the number of options. Under Abbott only the elite will prosper.

  13. mars08

    With Abbott as a prominent figure in Australian public life – as Opposition Leader and now as PM – we have lost the ability to have constructive national conversations that are informed by facts and context…

    In fairness… this decline did not start with Abbott, and is not restricted to Australia.

  14. David Frizzell

    You’re absolutely right Robert v K – it was 2010. My mistake.
    Couldn’t agree more on your other point…how was it not a career ending interview? Mind boggling.

  15. Margl

    Well said Michael, totally agree with you. Unfortunately we don’t have any interviewers of the Kerry O’Brien calibre around these days, although Sarah Ferguson was doing pretty well on 7.30. And don’t get me started on the MSM. Shame we don’t – they think they can say and do anything with impunity. Hopefully people are waking up to the LNP’s duplicity now, and Abbott is just too gutless to never appear on anything but friendlies.

  16. stephentardrew

    Don’t really matter Mars8 its our challenge and we need to do something about it.

  17. Martin

    Fascinating article, I completely agree. Abbott is the worst thing to happen to Australia for a long time.
    However… this usage of ‘alternate’. No, doesn’t mean the same as ‘alternative’. You quote specifically the American usage of the word, which is vernacular. This still jars severely with many Australian and European readers. There is no reference to interchangeability between the words in the Oxford dictionary on my desk; ‘Alternate: (of things of two kinds) coming each after one of the other kinds’. See ‘alternator: dynamo giving alternating current [Latin; alterno, do things by turns]. Quite a different word to ‘Alternative: available in place of something else’.

  18. Damo451

    There is one person who could replace Kerry O’Brien ,and that’s Sarah Ferguson.
    Unfortunately the powers that be decided that when Leigh Sales returned from maternity leave ,Sarah Ferguson couldn’t be moved elsewhere.
    Instead we get the likes of Emma Alberichi and her Mark Textor interview , if you could call it that ,which i would class as pathetic ,except that i fear it has created an entirely new level below that.
    I will always remember Sarah’s opening question to Hockey ” is it liberating to decide that election promises don’t matter ”
    I have no doubt ,that had she remained at the ABC ,she would have proven every bit as good as Kerry O’Brien ,if not better.
    She seemed to be absolutely genuine in her interviewing technique ,and was extremely tenacious and assertive , without being obnoxious.
    Sarah ,apparently had a bit of a cult following afterwards on social media ,as many ,including myself , were very impressed.
    It’s no wonder her husband ,Tony Jones ,became quite enamored with her when they first met.

  19. stephentardrew

    Argh Michael my hair has turned white, given up on gray, and is thinning and I blame this toxic bastard.

  20. Lee

    “TONY ABBOTT: “I’m not saying that our culture and our traditions are perfect. But we have to respect them and my idea is to build on the strength of our society and I support by and large evolutionary change. I’m not someone who wants to see radical changes based on the fashion of the moment.” ”

    Why do we have to respect our culture and traditions? Once upon a time it was part of the culture to burn people considered to be witches. Should we have stuck with that? Abbott isn’t respecting the culture and traditions of Muslims. The Abbott family has a culture and tradition of leaning. Yet he demonises others that he considers to be leaners. Why is his own culture and traditions more important than anyone else’s?

  21. Lee

    Damo451, agreed about Sarah Ferguson. I miss her. We need more journalists like her who are not afraid to ask the tough questions and keep pushing for an answer when the answer is dodged.

  22. Lee

    “ABBOTT: “I think I’ve fully dealt with it. Time to move on.” ”

    Is it time for another Royal Commission into home insulation yet?

  23. Kaye Lee

    Barry O’Farrell resigned when he was shown a note thanking Giarolomo for a bottle of wine.

    Tony Abbott categorically denied funding Terry Sharples case against Pauline Hanson….until he was shown a handwritten letter FROM Tony Abbott to Terry Sharples promising that Sharples would not be “further out of pocket” in pursuing the case against One Nation.

    Interview with the SMH

    Q: You did an interview with Four Corners about two weeks after that [letter] in which the reporter asked you whether there had been any discussion with Terry Sharples about funding from any source and you said “Absolutely not”.

    A: Misleading the ABC is not quite the same as misleading the Parliament as a political crime. But my memory – and I thought about that a lot at the time, what I think the reporter said, and I haven’t got a transcript – was “Is there any Liberal Party money behind this?”

    Q: The question was “So there was never any question of any party or other funds from any other source being offered to Terry Sharples?”

    A: And I said “there is no question of party funds”.

    Q: No, you just said “Absolutely not”.

    Interview with Kerry O’Brien

    O’BRIEN: “But on July 31, you told Tony Jones – you gave him an “absolutely not” denial about any kind of funds going to Terry Sharples.”

    ABBOTT: “I said that I had not offered him money and I stand by that.”

    O’BRIEN: “You offered him costs? That’s money!”

    ABBOTT: “Oh, come on, Kerry.”

    O’BRIEN: “Tony Abbott, that is money! Let me hear it from your lips: that is money!”

    ABBOTT: “Let’s move on.

  24. lawrencewinder

    There is an alternate universe, it’s inhabited by “The Coots-With-Queer-Ideas-from-a-Parallel-Universe,” the IPA!
    And the discomfort we all feel is Rabid-the-Hun trying to make us fit into that small, narrow minded venal world.

  25. Michael Taylor

    Thanks Margl, but David wrote the article.

    I’ve changed the date of the interview, btw.

  26. Adriaan de Leeuw

    We note that Tony Abbott unlike previous Prime Ministers refuses to appear on Q&A, I suppose it has something that His mentor John Howard would call “Lack of ticker”

  27. Linda

    I seriously thinkTA is showing signs of brain damage from all that boxing …..why do we never consider this in an assessment of his often puzzling behaviour ?

  28. David K

    Journalist: “The condition of the budget will not be an excuse for breaking promises?”
    Abbott: “Exactly right. We will keep the commitments that we make.”

  29. David K

  30. stephentardrew

    Sheesh the guy is a thundering dunderhead lying, conniving idiot.

    Wake up Australia.

    The fools solution is to be a bigger fool.

    He makes a fine art of turning nonsense into a senseless narrative while Australians slept in their ignorance.

  31. ralf106alf

    “Lying, after all, is suggestive of game theory. It involves at least two people, a liar and someone who is lied to; it transmits information, the credibility and veracity of which are important; it influences some choice to lie or not to lie is part of the liar’s choice of strategy; and the possibility of a lie presumably occurs to the second party, and may be judged against some ‘a priori’ expectations; and the payoff configurations are rich in their possibilities.” – Thomas Schelling, “game Theory and the Study of Ethical Systems” – If we apply this to the Abbott regime governing Australians today, I would suspect that the ways and means of some very big media players have set this up for the Liberal Party of Australia. Why is it that the AAA rating and the pre-election report from the Australian Treasury put the lie to Abbott/Hockey continued assertion that the economy was in a mess in 2013? Lying advertising Gurus have infiltrated the leadership of The Australian/National Liberal Party’s of Australia.

  32. Erotic Moustache

    I seriously thinkTA is showing signs of brain damage from all that boxing …..why do we never consider this in an assessment of his often puzzling behaviour ?

    Because he didn’t actually do that much boxing. Plus I don’t see much that’s “puzzling” about his behaviour. Egregious, but hardly puzzling.

  33. philgorman2014

    I puzzled and perplexed. How can half the population have ever been persuaded to vote for these people? Can’t they think for themselves? Why do they vote against their own interests? How could they have remained so ignorant of Abbott’s character?

  34. mars08


    I puzzled and perplexed. How can half the population have ever been persuaded to vote for these people? Can’t they think for themselves?…

    Given our shared language, media ownership, and the similarity between out cultures…

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
    ~Isaac Asimov

  35. Möbius Ecko

    Yes mars08, the same dumbing down of the population that has been in play in the US for so long as to be ingrained as normal in their society is underway and being normalised here.

    It’s how you get a man who works three jobs and his wife two, yet still barely scrapes together a weekly living, and whose living was destroyed by George W Bush’s policies, still passionately and almost to the point of violence defended Bush. I saw this in an interview with a man as he was leaving his main job after it closed down because of a policy the Bush administration implemented.

    The dumbing down is required to enable the conservatives to get away with running fear campaigns, and there is no nation more afraid than the US.

  36. stephentardrew

    Mars8: Love that quote. Grew up on Isacc Asimov help opened up the old cranium.

  37. mars08

    Möbius Ecko:

    …and there is no nation more afraid than the US.

    Yes indeed!!!

    I hardly watch any TV at all. But when I do… I’m astounded at the themes running through all the American TV shows I see advertised. It seems to me that (apart from the comedies) American shows DEPEND on fear and violence for their popularity. The stories seem to be all about foreigners or other “evil” stereotypes plotting to harm innocent Americans.

  38. Möbius Ecko

    Not just fear against others getting you so as to harm or rip you off, but things getting you, germs, bugs, dirt, weather etc. The list is endless and endlessly recycled into new forms and new ways of getting you.

    All to sell stuff, like guns and germ and bug killers. A nation bought up to fear everyone and everything with Australia following suit.

    A good example I’ve read is the fact that Canada has more guns per capita than the US, yet has a fraction of the gun crime and crime overall. The reason I read was the Canadians are not raised to believe the whole world is out to get them because they want to take over the whole world.

  39. stephentardrew

    Guys and gals:

    Fear is the modus operandi of conservatives. The psyche evidence is very clear. Progressives are more prone to reason. God fearing is the default setting from those who espouse a God of love. Mr Devil Man is under your bet waiting to suck your eyes out if you don’t do what I say. The most dangerous invention of religions has been the devil, hell, original sin, karma, victim blame and judgment blame and retribution. The total antithesis of what science is presenting. You are right about the constant peddling of fear, danger, catastrophe, destruction, death, autopsies, grim tails of suffering while the heroes catch the doyens of evil who are actually a product of a twisted and judgmental society built upon retribution. Law and Order has to be the one of the most dangerous programs I have ever seen and will never watch again along with Bones and all that other death dealing psychosis.

    If lots of young people were not disturbed before watching this crap will certainly reinforce fear judgment, blame and retribution.

    Murdoch is not the only wielder of dystopian control when much of the entertainment industry is geared towards retributive justice.

    We don’t need rational solutions just build more prisons and let the cops shoot more blacks.

    The sooner we realize we are Asians and settle into our part of the world the better.

  40. philgorman2014

    Well said good people. You confirm my suspicions.

    Australians are losing their independence of mind as well as their confidence. We are becoming shell-shocked under a constant barrage of tawrdy cultural imperialism from the USA. Citizen Murdock, the IPA and their shock troops have established a beachead for the corpocracy here.

    We are being divided and conquered.

    Ignorance, fear, greed, and prejudice prevail.

    And thanks for all the Asimov.

  41. mars08

    These fact that we share a common language is becoming more of a curse every day.

    I met my daughter for coffee today. On our way out of the shopping centre, I paused to watch a news show on a TV.

    A man in his 30’s was also watching the TV when they did a story about the NY police killing Eric Garner. After a few seconds he sarcastically mumbles something like… “Oh it’s so sad because he’s black. The police were just doing their job”. When he says it he looks at me for agreement. I just shrugged.

    This man had decided that there was too much fuss over the killing of an unarmed civilian by a police officer. No doubt this same chap would have been very upset about the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes…

    So now we’re biased against Afro-Americans???? How did that happen? What did they ever do to us??

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