Features Australia

Dutton’s dinner diary

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

I want to speak as a proud member of the Abbott cabinet, but I also want to speak as a friend and I want to relay some stories to you that I think define Tony Abbott as the wonderful human being that he is.

In the days after the 2007 election loss we had a ministers-only lunch at The Lodge and Tony sounded me out about what I thought his prospects might be to lead the party. He hadn’t had a great campaign in 2007, and my advice to him was that he wouldn’t have the support in the party room and the public wasn’t ready for him to be leader. It was a tough conversation, but as we all know he is completely indefatigable. He never gave up on his ambition for this country and his tenacity in opposition was what pulled us from an otherwise certain long period in the wilderness. No other person in the party at that time, either in 2010 or 2013, could have achieved the success that Tony did on behalf of our party and country.

Perhaps the most common refrain from people who meet Tony is that when they meet him in person, they say he is nothing like he appears on television. In fact this is the great tragedy – not that he is a different person publicly, but that he was portrayed as such by his opponents.

Nonetheless, Australians sensed a decency in Tony and their sense was right.  Tony felt a calling to public service as a life-long dedication – why he still draws so much satisfaction from his volunteer fire-fighting duties, raising money through the Pollie Pedal and community service.

Whenever you caught up with Tony as we all traversed throughout the country, it was always at a steak restaurant. Tony loves his steak, and the leftover portion of your steak as well – even if it’s just the rib-bone off the rib-eye with a skerrick of meat left on, he was still very happy to oblige.

Like much about the man, the legacy of the Abbott government is not fully appreciated and it falls to us as friends of a warrior of our party to properly define it and to defend it. The real legacy is defined in the work of the first Abbott budget. Yes, much of the talk tonight has been about abolition of taxes, to making sure that we kept our borders secure; but the really tough decisions were taken in that Expenditure Review Committee process  and for good reason. Investments were made, wasteful spending was cut and long-term recurrent savings locked in – all of which underpinned the economic success of the Coalition to this very day. The surplus is the work of three leaders and treasurers, but it wouldn’t be a reality in 2020, as the prime minister pointed out before, without the work of 2013. Our economic credentials underpinned our success in 2013, 2016 and 2019, and it was all forged in that first Abbott budget.

Tony became a favourite of the Australian Federal Police with his regular strenuous bike rides and enthusiastic training regime. Now, I exercise to the point of exhaustion most mornings – which may not be immediately obvious to you – but my security detail never breaks into a sweat. Compared to Tony I am a great disappointment to them because when Tony was their leader they were purchasing motorised pushbikes to keep up, and many were updating their life insurance policies.

One of my favourite stories about my very proud time as a minister in the Abbott government was when Tony packed up half his cabinet and the Canberra public servants and we went camping in the Northern Territory. It highlighted his desire to see genuine, and not just symbolic, outcomes for indigenous Australians. It was a long held interest, but it was more, much more than an interest; it was part of his fibre. He cared deeply for indigenous children in particular, and as prime minister he saw his genuine opportunity to improve their lives in every way possible. And he did. It was an insight into his deeply-held values and his inherent quality as a human being.

Now to go camping with the prime minister of Australia is not just any casual weekend away. It involved deployment firstly of an army battalion, the pre-positioning of a mobile phone tower and security detail months in the planning.

I’m not sure if you’ve been camping with the Abbott’s, but the mornings start with exercise. No regular routine I might add, but one with the SAS Commander barking instructions at us. Suffice to say, my sit-ups and push-ups were not up to prime ministerial standard and after the workout when we went to breakfast, Tony provided a speech to the mess of assembled army officers and he noted my poor performance and advised I should receive an unfavourable mention in dispatches.

Whilst I don’t think he was joking on that occasion, he does have a great sense of humour and his recall of detail, as pointed out before, is quite remarkable.  Tony is one of the most intelligent people in the life of our nation. I think in fact it was his intelligence and depth of thought that wasn’t properly appreciated by many of the modern-day journalists.

I want to make mention tonight of Joe Hockey and Peta Credlin. Two of the most unfairly maligned figures of the Abbott era. The game was to pull them down in an effort to pull down Tony.  They served their prime minister loyally and with distinction and history should record it that way.

The reality of the Abbott leadership is that forces within the then shadow cabinet and subsequent cabinet undermined his position from day one. History records many of the same forces were unleashed to also bring down Brendan Nelson. The truth is many of the same people attempted to do the same to the Morrison prime ministership. Fortunately, our success in May has left those people in our wake and our party is much stronger for it.

Those of us who are gathered here tonight genuinely believed in Tony and that includes many of his former and current MP’s and staff here tonight, and we did so because we saw in him a special quality. We saw him in motion and we properly understood his true decency and loyalty. We saw his genuine rapport for people and whilst we are saddened he was never afforded the time he needed to implement his full vision for this country, we are extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to have worked for one of Australia’s great prime ministers, and to have shared in his love for his family, his friends and colleagues, his staff, his party, his country, and his God.

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