By Peter Clarke,
April 25, 2013
Late last year, Leigh Sales interviewed Tony Abbott live on the 730 Report. Sales was sharp and persistent, Abbott poorly prepared and struggling. Sales beat claims of bias and won a coveted Walkley Award for TV interviewing.
Naturally viewers were relishing the prospect of a return bout, and Sales and the program promoted the interview on social media. It now seems that if Abbott agrees to be interviewed on an ABC current affairs program it is a ‘get’. Because of the history and the ongoing tensions between the office of the opposition leader and the ABC, there is an additional expectation from the audience.
Unlike Sales’ interviews with Prime Minister Gillard, there is no history between Sales and Abbott around key policy areas or even how they engage in these set-piece, contested, political interviews. Rather, each interview appears to be built from the ground up, as if it was the first one. Their rarity causes a fundamental problem in the continuity of enquiry.
I first reviewed Sales’ performance in a piece about her interview with Gillard after she stared down Rudd to retain her leadership, in which I was quite critical of both participants. I have long been an admirer of Sales, and cite her as one of the best we have.
Or I used to.
Something happened in that Gillard interview which diminished the natural and hard-won interviewing skills Sales had clearly demonstrated. She gleaned very little useful insight or information for citizens. Last night’s interview with Abbott was calmer and smoother than the Gillard one or Sales’ last interview with Abbott, but, again, very little content of real value emerged.
In fact, the most troubling aspect of the interview last night was that Sales did not appear to be listening acutely enough to Abbott’s answers. Alongside all the integrated skills and techniques in a top interviewer’s toolkit, LISTENING remains the key attribute. Without it, the ‘hollow dance’ becomes even more superficial.
This Abbott interview was roughly the same duration as the Gillard one – just over thirteen minutes. It was (as was the Gillard interview) pre-recorded. And Abbott was not in the studio with Sales. Here is a brief analysis of the interview transcript.
In her set-up, Sales frames the interview as an enquiry into the Coalition’s economic plan, stating that “your vote will boil down” to your judgement on how well the Labor government handled the Global Financial Crisis and associated spending. Her opening remarks to Abbott followed that line until she ask the gift (for Abbott) question: Are you asking the public to elect you on blind faith?
In my article on Sales’ Gillard interview, I suggested that the interview never recovered from asking a broad diffuse and opinionated first question. Sales’ opening gambit with Gillard:
After recent events, aren’t Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?
Notice the similarity in form and approach? Gillard walked through the giant gap. So did Abbott.
Sales could have chosen, as her set-up promised, a specific, targeted first question around economic policy to stop Abbott being able to rely on the generalised, abstract discourse politicians favour to avoid the question and stay on message. But Sales went for the flourish again, and it let her down, again.
Whoever wins the next election will be facing up to a possible decade of budget deficits, thanks to pressure on revenue and growing demands for government services, especially in health.If the polls are to be believed, the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is on track to be the next prime minister and he’ll be the one who has to manage the challenging budget situation.Mr Abbott joined me from Melbourne a short time ago.Tony Abbott, come September, you will most likely be the Prime Minister. You’ve so far released just a handful of policies and no broad economic plan. Are you asking the public to elect you on blind faith?
Abbott uses the well tried technique of first picking up, not on the question, but the implication in Sales’ set-up of the likelihood of an Abbott government. This places a buffer between his overall answer and the thrust (however diffuse) of Sales’ question. It also is part of a suite of constant messages, including this one – that Abbott and his team are “taking nothing for granted”.
Then he answers the question obliquely by making the quite extraordinary claim that he is “available every day” (ironic in the context of his rare appearances at tougher interviews).
Then Abbott throws up a mini-campaign style list of slogans. He carefully uses the very general, abstract form of words, “shape and structure is very clear”.
TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: Well, Leigh, a couple of points. The first point is that I take nothing for granted. My team takes nothing for granted. We’re working very hard every day because we know that while this might be a pretty poor government, they’re clever at low politics, so we take nothing for granted.
The second point I make is that I’m available every day. Very few days would go by without my being available to the public and we’ve put out our Real Solutions plan, we’ve put out the Strong Australia book, and while the NBN policy that we released a couple of weeks back is the first formal detailed policy of the election year, there are many specific policy commitments out there to abolish carbon tax, abolish the mining tax, reduce red tape by a billion dollars a year to stop the boats, to introduce a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme. So I think the shape and structure of a incoming Coalition government is very clear.
Leigh chooses, out of the list of slogans, the “Our Plan” booklet. Is her question sharp and specific enough? She opines that the booklet contains largely “aspirations” not ”concrete plans” (ostensibly what this interview is aimed at rectifying to some extent). The logic here is on track. Here was an instant opportunity to become very specific, to press Abbott on actual “plans”. But here begins the dance between the two around the semantics of “plans” versus “commitments”.
Again Sales chooses a generalised “flourish question” based on “misleading Australians” thereby subverting any real forensic enquiry around specifics.
LEIGH SALES: You mentioned your document Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians, but it’s largely made up of aspirations not actual concrete plans. Are you misleading Australians when you say that you have a comprehensive plan?
Abbott sidesteps the question and reverts to very generalised coalition claims including “everyone understands” and conflates “plans” and “commitments” quite effectively
TONY ABBOTT: Well, as I said, there are some 50 specific commitments that we’ve made and I think everyone understands that if they do change the government, we will abolish the carbon tax, abolish the mining tax, get the budget back in the black, stop the boats, build things like the East-West Link here in Melbourne, the Pacific Highway duplication, the WestConnex project. We will have further commitments to make obviously on things like the Bruce Highway. I think people understand this, but above all else, what they understand is that if they want decent economic management, if they want to make sure that Australia keeps its triple A rating, if they want a pathway back to surplus, they do need to change the government.
Sales seizes upon the “pathway back to surplus” claim from the end of his answer. She is more forceful and starts to tackle the “plan” versus “aspiration” or “commitment” conflation by Abbott.
But, as always, precise language counts. Should Sales have used a “you just said …” form instead of “But when you say something like …” form which removes the precision and targeting of his claim.
LEIGH SALES: But when you say something like, “We’ll get the budget back in black,” that’s an aspiration, that’s no actually a plan. How will you get the budget back in black when we’re talking about deficits of tens of billions of dollars?
Abbott further conflates “commitments” and “plans” ignoring Sales’ attempts at logic.
He does give something quite specific albeit with a measure of ambiguity. Is he saying that the coalition target is to reduce the public service by 20,000? He bolsters that impression by mentioning a saving of $4 billion. His last sentence changes the thrust of the Sales’ question from “how will you get the budget …” back to “where are your “plans”?
TONY ABBOTT: We’ve already said that there are certain commitments that this government has made that we won’t go ahead with. We won’t go ahead with the so-called Schoolkids Bonus because that’s a cash splash with borrowed money with nothing to do with education. We won’t be proceeding with the superannuation low income offset because it’s funded by the mining tax, which is raising no money. We will, by natural attrition, reduce the size of the Commonwealth public sector payroll, because that’s 20,000 more now than it was in 2007. That’s about $4 billion over the forward estimates. We won’t have $6.5 billion worth of border protection blowouts because we will change policy to stop the boats. So, I think there’s plenty out there, Leigh.
From that list, Sales raises the $70 billion potential savings implicitly required by the coalition citing shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey
LEIGH SALES: All of that’s a lot short of about $70 billion, which is where Joe Hockey put the potential savings you’d have to find.
Surely, this is a mistake by Sales? If ever there was a moment to interrupt (a technique so criticized by many of her detractors on social media), this is it.
“What is the correct figure then, Mr Abbott? What is the precise size of the savings a coalition government is facing and planning for?
Then remarkably, Abbott zooms across the Tasman to use New Zealand as some kind of budgetary exemplar.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, that’s not a correct figure. Yes, we do have to find significant savings, but it’s nothing like that figure. Nothing like that figure at all. And let’s look, if I may for a moment take you across the Tasman to New Zealand. The New Zealand National Government is on track to get total government spending down from 35 to just 30 per cent of GDP without savage cuts by two things. First, they’ve made changes that have promoted economic growth, and second, they have religiously guarded against additional new spending. And that’s where this government has gone so wrong. Every day we have ministers talking about difficulties with the revenue and every day the Prime Minister is out there announcing billions in new spending.
Again Sales uses Abbott’s claim to challenge its underpinnings. However, it is only a brief assertion with no clear, forensic challenging question attached.
LEIGH SALES: But you’ve brought in the international comparison. Labor’s public social spending as a percentage of GDP is below the OECD average, it’s below New Zealand. Government debt in Australia as a percentage of GDP is also lower than virtually every other developed nation. When you look at the stats and the international comparisons, Australia’s spending and debt is certainly not excessive.
Abbott uses the absence of an actual question to introduce another detail, sticking to his New Zealand reference. This is obfuscation in the raw.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, let’s not forget that New Zealand doesn’t have state governments and we do have state governments, and sure, the Commonwealth looks alright in isolation against New Zealand, but throw in state governments and I’m afraid the situation is quite different.
Sales re-asserts her point but again it now desperately needs a strong direct question to Abbott to elicit something clearer and more informative. It is another statement with no question. That’s two in a row.
LEIGH SALES: But my point is internationally our levels of debt and our levels of spending are not excessive.
It’s another gift for Abbott. He uses the easy opportunity to peddle another political claim. At this point in the interview, there is hardly any pressure on Abbott at all to answer relevant and important questions. He is cruising. Sales is looking for handholds but she is still suffering from her ineffective opening gambit. Time is ticking and each second elapsed in this style is strongly to Abbott’s advantage, as he now demonstrates by ignoring yet again the occurrence of the GFC.
He even manages a Whitlam mention to drive home the point of Labor economic incompetence”
TONY ABBOTT: Well I don’t believe that is a fair statement, if I may say so, Leigh. The fact is we do have lower debt than some countries, but that’s because we had no debt, no debt, back in 2007 thanks to the good work first of the Hawke-Keating government, but then the Howard-Costello government. Now, debt has increased more rapidly as a percentage of GDP under this government than at any time since modern accounting records were first kept back in 1970. So, the expansion of debt under this government is worse than Whitlam.
Sales uses her research to challenge Abbott, but again no question. That is three in a row in a major accountability interview. One has to ask the basic question: did Sales have a clear idea of WHAT SHE WANTED TO FIND OUT?
Again, a small language form point but it matters. Sales, certainly in this interview, uses “softened” forms of words such as “Well, if you want to talk about …”. Would a blunter more direct form be better and shift the dynamic, like “You claim fiscal profligacy …”
LEIGH SALES: Well if you want to talk about fiscal profligacy, the IMF has looked at 200 years of government financial records across 55 leading economies and it identified only two periods of irresponsible spending in Australia in recent years and they were both during the Howard years.
Again, inevitably, the opposition leader exploits the absence of the pressure of a real forensic question to answer his own question by to extolling surpluses under the Howard government.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, the interesting thing about the Howard Government is that the Howard Government delivered surpluses in 11 of its last 11 budgets. So, 10 out of 11 surpluses for the Howard Government and over the life of the Howard Government we averaged surpluses of almost one per cent of GDP. The last Labor surplus was back in 1989. That was the last Labor surplus. And so far, Treasurer Swan has given us the four biggest deficits in Australian history.
Sales ignores the answer and cites an opinion or critique from former coalition treasurer, Peter Costello. It has a slight non-sequitur feel about it at this juncture. And moving from Costello’s opinion to a question based on an assumption is thin. Again, the question lies at the weaker end of forensic and is very general: “is that the sort of approach …?
We are well into the interview. Nothing has really happened yet. The process seems disjointed. The effectiveness of the exchange is clearly suffering from very generalised questions where policy specifics are required and using statements instead of questions.
LEIGH SALES: In the memoirs of the former Treasurer Peter Costello, he writes of you, “… never one to be held back by the financial consequences of decisions. He had grandiose plans for public expenditure.” Is that the sort of approach Australia needs in a Prime Minister when we have a predicted decade or so of budget deficits?
Abbott again enjoys the easy ride and defuses criticism of his fiscal approach deftly while adding a sting about “cost effectiveness evaluation”.
TONY ABBOTT: Well obviously when I was the Health Minister it was important to invest appropriately in new treatments, in medical research and so on. The interesting thing about the kind of proposals that I put forward as Health Minister is that they were all subject to rigorous cost-effectiveness evaluation. That’s the beauty of PBS and Medicare spending of the Commonwealth under our system: it’s all subject to rigorous cost-effectiveness evaluation. And frankly, if it does pass cost-effectiveness tests, mostly it’s worth doing. The problem is that none of the big spending of this government has been subject to serious cost-effectiveness evaluation.
Well that didn’t go anywhere, so Sales leaps back to an earlier Abbott answer regarding “Our Plan”. She asks a clear, relevant, reasonably specific question at last. Unfortunately, so many of these political interviews are littered with passives. A verb in the passive voice is shorn, by definition, of the agent of an action and much loved by politicians because clear accountability is submerged. Surely, interviewers in an accountability interview, especially with the putative next Prime Minister of the country, would do better to use an active voice wherever possible. It makes a difference!
“Are you not clearly contradicting that “lower taxes” policy by your promise to impose a 1.5 percent levy …?
LEIGH SALES: You spoke earlier about your document Our Plan and it includes the statement that, “We have an economic plan for Australia, a plan to lower taxes to stimulate economic growth.” Isn’t that promise contradicted by your policy to impose a 1.5 per cent levy on big business to fund a maternity leave scheme?
Sales struck a sliver of gold here. Abbott is forced into the old “ I hear what you are saying … “line. The key words here are “no net increase in tax”.This is the first sniff of news.
Abbottt wraps himself in caveats. This could have been a turning point. The content was significant. The dynamic had shifted. The question was specific. And further questions were on the verge of clarifying one of Abbott’s big “commitments”, one much criticised by his own side of politics. Rich pickings on offer…
TONY ABBOTT: I hear what you’re saying, Leigh, and I know that there are some people who are unhappy about that element of our policy. But let’s never forget that we are abolishing the carbon tax, we’re abolishing the mining tax and what we want to do is have a modest reduction in company tax that will mean that for big businesses, there is no net increase in tax, despite the paid parental leave levy and of course small business will get a company tax cut and a paid parental leave without having to pay the levy.
Sales does press Abbott further. Slightly. This is where a tighter, sharper less general, abstract question was needed.
LEIGH SALES: So can we clarify: will it be fully offset for big businesses?
Sales seeks “clarification” but we as citizens are left with less clarity. In a few words, Abbott elbows himself some more wiggle room in relation to paid parental leave.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, my hope – and we can’t finalise the fiscal position, we can’t finalise the timings of these initiatives until we’ve seen the pre-election fiscal outlook and I fear that that will be much worse than the Government is currently letting on. My hope is that we are able to introduce paid parental leave at the same time as we have an offsetting company tax cut.
There are no follow-ups. Suddenly, Sales jumps again. Abbott was seemingly much better prepared for this interview with Sales both in terms of lines and talking points and how to anticipate and deal with her themes and questions.
If there was going to be one certainty, Sales would ask about the NSW O’Farrell government’s signing up to the Gillard government’s Gonski plan. One can imagine Abbott’s minders discussing what Sales might ask and how.
As it turned out, Sales chose a very weak question form that lay totally in the realm of predictability. Again, very general with truck size gaps to drive through and the use of “why” which is the weakest and most open-ended of the traditional journalistic interrogatives.
There seems to be little evidence of exactly what Sales was wanting to find out here. Was it not time to forensically enquire about the DETAILS of Gonski? Press Abbott on key aspects and details? More clearly gauge where he actually stood. Examine his values around education especially around a “needs based approach”. Again, a rich vein to mine?
Sales chose the more political rather than policy aspect. Or weaving the two together.
LEIGH SALES: Let’s turn to education. If Barry O’Farrell, the Liberal leader of the largest state, thinks that the Gonski plan is a good idea, then why doesn’t the federal Liberal leader?
Sales let’s Abbott get away with the cheeky avoidance in the beginning of his answer. This is another clear invitation to intervene, engage and challenge. That’s her job. What we get is more obfuscation and avoidance naturally and more precious seconds slipping by.
TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, it’s too early to say exactly what the Gonski plan is. The Prime Minister hasn’t really come clean. We don’t know all the details of what was agreed between herself and Barry O’Farrell. Look, I’m sure Barry believes that this is in the best interests of NSW and if the Prime Minister can deliver on it, fine, but the Prime Minister has a very poor record of actually delivering, a really hopeless record of actually delivering. This is a government which is great at making promises, but hopeless at keeping them.
Another very predictable but fair question from Sales. Still no real pressure on Abbott.
LEIGH SALES: Well Barry O’Farrell obviously has some confidence that this promise will be delivered on. Now that his government has signed a deal with the Commonwealth, is that a deal that you will honour?
This next passage from Abbott is truly remarkable. If Sales had done her job better earlier, by now the opposition leader would be severely circumscribed and much more wary making these statements. What he is actually saying is ‘education is a drag on the economy – not an investment’ (to say nothing of educational equity). This debate has been going on for years. Gonski is all about these issues and ideologies. For Abbott to slide so easily by without strong challenge is one of the real disgraces of this interview.
If “the existing system is not broken” as Abbott claims, what on earth have the education and Gonski debate been about?
Sales doesn’t even flinch when Abbott avers: “everything right now, Leigh, has to be tested against that framework: how is it going to help us get back to surplus? How is it gonna make our economy more productive?”
I suppose, by default, we do hear this statement of “values” however generalised and undefended. Slim pickings?
TONY ABBOTT: What we’ve said is we want to wait and see whether the Prime Minister can bring about a nationally consistent approach. And we’re not prepared to commit at this point in time to anything short of that. Let’s face it: the existing system is not broken. I don’t say it can’t be improved. I don’t say that we wouldn’t under perfect circumstances want to put more money into schools, but these aren’t perfect circumstances. Our triple A credit rating is at risk if there’s not a path back to surplus, and frankly, everything right now, Leigh, has to be tested against that framework: how is it going to help us get back to surplus? How is it gonna make our economy more productive?
So that is the education policy part of the interview done with.
I simply do not understand what prompts Sales, after all that had preceded this point in a very flabby interview, to ask such a question as this. Again, what EXACTLY was she seeking to discover? It is very hard to discern. Is Sales becoming addicted to the flourish, the “smart arse” question form? If so, it is certainly hampering her effectiveness.
LEIGH SALES: Before we go, in your own mind, what is the biggest hurdle to you becoming Prime Minister in September?
TONY ABBOTT: Well it’s not about me, Leigh. It really isn’t. It’s got to be about our country. Now, …
LEIGH SALES: Well what’s the biggest hurdle, though?
As he has demonstrated all through this interview, Abbott exploits Sales’ lack of specific questioning and pressure to address narrower details and to seek values frameworks.
We all had to sit and listen to Abbott’s risible polemics about “milking incumbency, demonising the opposition” etc. Well, as John Howard would say at such moments – “Hullo?”
Perhaps at this wind down phase of the interview, a hearty laugh from Sales to underscore the absurdity of Abbott’s replies would have been appropriate?
TONY ABBOTT: Well it’s never easy to win an election from opposition, and as I say, this is a pretty hopeless government, but they’re pretty clever at politics and I suspect every day they will be out there a.) milking incumbency, b.) demonising the Opposition, c.) mortgaging the future in the hope of buying a few votes and d.) booby trapping the future in the hope that an incoming government will be saddled with a whole lot of commitments that make managing the budget very, very difficult indeed. It’s a pretty low and dishonourable government that way, but I think we are more than up to it.
Right in the dying moments (unfortunately), Sales conjures a slight sense of challenge around Abbott’s perceived character as a “hard man”.
But examine the exact form and language in the question. What real force does it have? Isn’t the form, ”Is it a problem for you …” a weak one?
LEIGH SALES: You yourself have written in your book Battlelines about the fact that you were the hard man of the Howard Government, you know, the headkicker, if you like. Is it a problem for you that Australians think that the hard man that we got to know over the Howard years is going to be a hard man as Prime Minister?
Abbott’s reply is pregnant with possibilities for further enquiry. But no, it’s over and another almost totally wasted thirteen minutes of crucial interview time has ebbed away.
TONY ABBOTT: Leigh, look, I accept that over the years, and I’ve been in public life for two decades at least, well really more than that one way or another now, and a lot of people have come to a lot of conclusions. But I also think that Australians are pretty fair-minded and they accept that people can grow if they move into a new position. I’d like to think that I have grown as Opposition Leader and I am confident that I can grow as Prime Minister should the public give me that extraordinary honour.
Sales, to match her overall very careful and largely deferential tone (compared to a more angular approach with Gillard) “books” up Abbott for further interviews as the election campaign unfolds. It borders on the emetic.
LEIGH SALES: Mr Abbott, thank you very much. We’ll look forward to seeing you again over the course of this election year.
TONY ABBOTT: Thank you so much, Leigh.
What can we say about such an empty interview? Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?
Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.
In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?
Has the constant drumbeat of partisan attack on the ABC generally and Sales personally ultimately had the “desired effect”?
Has Abbott’s tactic of largely refusing to appear on serious ABC current affairs programs served to skew the whole process and context of these accountability interviews away from the crucial content more into an exciting hoped for blood sport?
Finally, what has happened to their “news sense” at ABC 730? At least two clear, news angles emerged: around the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, its exact timing and the offsets for large companies and around the future funding of the Gonski reforms.
This interview was strongly promoted as an overview of Abbott’s policies against a background of the worrying paucity of clear policy detail from the coalition in this election lead-up period. Yet when the clear opportunities to winkle those details out arrived, the ball was dropped.
How very disappointing.
I look forward to reading and responding to your comments.
Peter Clarke is the author of The Interview: A Hollow Dance Looking for New Moves in Australian Journalism Today edited by Matthew Ricketson, published by Palgrave McMillan.