The Fax Machine Prime Minister
Tony Abbott’s time as Prime Minister of Australia lasted 726 days. On day 402 of his tenure, satirical website The Shovel published a clever piece of work, poking fun at his fondness for outdated technology.
“Fax machines have been a big part of our past, and they’ll be a big part of our future, both here in Australia, and around the world” Mr Abbott said.
“Telecommunications will continue to underpin economies of the 21st century, and faxes will remain the world’s principle telecommunications device for decades to come”.
The day after a leadership spill that saw Abbott replaced with his then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, we discovered that Abbott’s final act as Prime Minister was to resign not through the traditional means of handing his resignation to the Governor General, but by faxing it.
This beautiful confluence of parodic prophecy and reality neatly summarises Abbott’s time as PM. Our Fax Machine Prime Minister was defined by his love of the old, and a hatred of the new. These emotions were so exaggerated that it was impossible to tell parody and reality apart.
Abbott’s love of coal was a defining component of his brief tenure as leader of the country. At the opening of a mine in October 2014, Abbott proudly declared that coal is ‘good for humanity’:
This remark is a neat illustration of Abbott’s resistance to change. There’s now a firm scientific consensus that coal is largely responsible for the emission of gases that linger in our atmosphere, and warm the Earth. The fuel may have contributed to many industrial growth, but it’s also bound us to self-harm at a species level, and so we hastily seek to reduce our reliance on it.
Abbott sees only the first half of this equation — downsides are dismissed. Abbott has dedicated efforts to trashing the claims of climate scientists, and he once declared climate change as ‘crap’. It’s hard not to see his loathing of the outcomes of scientific inquiry as part of the creation of this constructed reality: that coal is amazing.
This manufactured fantasy, built from a foundation of cherry-picked evidence and scientific denialism, pulled Abbott in a strange direction. In the late stages of Abbott’s floundering leadership, he commenced a weird attack on “Green lawfare”, and sought to change the law to disallow environmental groups from opposing large mining projects.
I suspect Abbott’s belief was genuine. Nothing less than a thick haze of self-righteous fervour could drive a nation’s leader to laugh with real pleasure at the thought of Pacific Islanders drowning due to climate change.
Coal, in the eyes of our Fax Machine Prime Minister, would power Australia for the rest of eternity. A few drowning foreigners were easily dismissed, in the construction of a country powered by coal for eternity.
In a previous analysis, I considered why the Abbott government reacted with such churning nausea, to the sight of wind energy technology. Abbott openly declared his outright disgust for wind energy several times during his short tenure, met always with mockery from the east-coast twitterati, and a collective shrug from the people.
“Yes there’s an absolute forest of these things on the other side of the lake near Bungendore. I absolutely understand why people are anxious about these things that are sprouting like mushrooms all over the fields of our country”
November 2013, 2GB
“When I’ve been up close to these things, not only are they visually awful, but they make a lot of noise..I would frankly have liked to reduce the number a lot more but we got the best deal we could out of the Senate, and if we hadn’t had a deal, Alan, we would have been stuck with even more of these things.”
June 2015, 2GB
“Up close, they’re ugly, they’re noisy and they may have all sorts of other impacts. It’s right and proper that we’re having an inquiry into the health impacts of these things. Frankly it’s right and proper we've reduced the Renewable Energy Target because as things stood there was going to be an explosion of these things right around our country”
June 2015, Press conference
Similarly, ex-Treasurer Joe Hockey, who has resigned from politics after the leadership spill, complained of ‘utterly offensive’ wind turbines, and happily discussed ways in which wind turbines could be literally destroyed. Abbott’s only experience of a wind turbine was a small machine on Rottnest Island — he cycled several hundred metres away from it, and based these Prime Ministerial remarks on that single experience.
It’s so weird looking back on these statements. The consistency of his terminology, “these things” and his truly paranoid forecast of uncontrolled infection from foreign wind turbines resonated with no-one, save for an incredibly small band of far-right conservatives and anti-wind farm groups.
In the latter half of Abbott’s tenure, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was instructed to stop investing in wind energy. The only reason given directly contradicted the CEFC’s mandate — to lend money to semi-mature technologies, and make money for the taxpayer. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority all faced abolition under Abbott (the government was stopped by the senate).
Abbott also pledged to a group of crossbench senators hostile to wind energy that the role of ‘wind farm commissioner’ would be created — dedicated to dealing with complaints about wind farms. Also promised was the creation of a dedicated panel of scientists investigating the health impacts of wind farms, separate to the National Health and Medical Research Council’s efforts.
Much of the damage inflicted on the clean energy industry was through the destabilisation of investment, and public posturing, illustrating angry, uncompromising hostility towards Australian clean technology. I strongly suspect much of this couldn't have happened without a Fax Machine Prime Minister. The attacks on clean energy centred around disease, disgust, infection and invasion — precisely the sentiments that enter the mind of one who is threatened by change.
The Saturday Paper’s editorial neatly summarises the major role of neophobia in Abbott’s rapid downfall:
“Abbott’s great fear, and the fear of those people left supporting him, is tomorrow. He is fearful of same-sex marriage. Fearful of an economy remade by climate change. Fearful of the fair distribution of taxes. Fearful of power as it ebbs away from the places where it was once concentrated. But tomorrow is always close; his prime ministership was always doomed”
This diagnosis is accurate. I imagine his ongoing dreams, haunted by fields of evil, three-bladed invaders, and brave, war-like efforts to stave them off. Armies of patriots standing at the gates of the gas field, ready to fend off the sandal-wearing tofu-eaters. Solar panels shadowed by a row of Australian flags, flying high.
The Australian clean energy industry was a victim of this effort to remake Australia into a neophobic safe-zone. As one might expect, these efforts were doomed from the outset, but fledgling industries, in early, vulnerable stages, were easy kills for those seeking to obliterate threats to incumbent technology.
Turnbull’s time as PM might see governmental technophobia reduced or revoked, but the conservative wing of the party still holds sway. Libertarian crossbench senators will presumably intensify their calls for the obliteration of coal’s competition through government regulation of renewable energy. Conversely, Turnbull loves technology, and wants to lead a “21st century government”.
Tony Abbott was a Fax Machine Prime Minister, through to the final seconds of his tenure. Abbott’s signature smouldering trail of destruction, part of his efforts to forcibly re-shape Australia into a Fax Machine Country, will smoke and sputter for some time.
Farewell, Tony. I hope you find your technophobic utopia, and that you do it without seeking to drag an entire country with you.