There’s A Lot We Can Learn From All The Stupid Things Tony Abbott Said In The Warringah Debate

Here's why we should be listening to Zali Steggall.

Warringah debate Zali Stegall vs Tony Abbott

At the start of the Warringah candidates’ debate on Thursday, an audience member prefaced his question to Zali Steggall and Tony Abbott with a vote of thanks. “First off I want to say how great it’s been to have democracy in Warringah again,” he said. “It’s been too long.”

He was referring, presumably, to the fact that Steggall’s high profile independent candidacy actually poses a threat to Tony Abbott, who has comfortably held the seat for more than two decades. But his comment actually summed up the debate pretty well: it was a rare glimpse of actual democracy in the midst of a federal election campaign that’s been largely dominated by absolute nonsense.

The Warringah debate was markedly better than the clusterfuck that was the first leaders’ debate between Shorten and Morrison, partly because it featured a savvy moderator and an actual debate format, but largely because the candidates were actually forced to speak their minds and outline what they stood for.

This was a revealing exercise. The first thing it revealed was the breadth and depth of Tony Abbott’s stupidity, which is too often treated as a known quantity these days. Over time, Abbott has become reduced to a figure standing for a set of right-wing values that, depending on your political perspective, makes him either an absolute hero, or a villain to be reviled.

The Warringah debate revealed him to be something else entirely: a guy so focused on winning a specific argument that he’s lost sight of the set of values he’s supposedly championing. He was so set on opposing Steggall that he was willing to oppose common sense, or his own past policies, simply to “win”.

A Brief Recap Of All The Stupid Shit Tony Abbott Said On Thursday

It goes without saying that Abbott said a lot of stupid shit during this debate. He opened by declaring himself the “champion” of the Northern Beaches tunnel, only to falter when Steggall said she supported it too. When Steggall advocated listening to the experts on climate change, Abbott’s response was to say “I think, frankly, that we subcontract out to experts too much already”. While discussing the costs of acting on climate change, he tried to argue that “we can’t save the planet at the expense of our neighbour”, as if working class Australians do not also live on the same planet.

Abbott’s most ridiculous comment, however, was his suggestion that we re-start the Australian car manufacturing industry instead of embracing electric cars. After Steggall expressed her support for electric vehicles, Abbott fell back on a few common responses, arguing that electric vehicles are too expensive for the average Australian, or that they aren’t suitable for Australians who need utes, vans or big cars.

Steggall then asked him what will happen in a few years’ time, when electric cars are cheaper and more available, but Australia doesn’t have the charging networks to support them. Abbott suggested that rather than adapt to the rise of electric cars, Australia could simply start making its own cars again.

This was a ridiculous comment for a few reasons. For one, it was pretty fucking rich coming from the guy who helped kill the Australian car manufacturing industry back when he was Prime Minister, refusing to offer subsidies to save manufacturing jobs. For another, it wasn’t a serious suggestion: Abbott, backed into a corner by Steggall’s suggestion that electric cars might soon become an affordable, widespread and reasonable choice, preferred to suggest a fantasy than acknowledge that maybe, under those conditions, electric cars might be worth supporting.

In short, he proved himself so fixated on beating Steggall that he was willing to throw almost anything under the bus — his values, his former policies, the constituents he claims to represent — to avoid being seen to agree with her.

Zali Steggall Really Is Tony Abbott’s Opposite, But Not Necessarily In The Way You’d Expect

Zali Steggall, unsurprisingly, proved in this debate to be more or less Tony Abbott’s opposite. The main difference between them wasn’t their position on climate change, though — it was the view of democracy they put forward.

Abbott, throughout the debate, seemed determined to refuse change: he described himself more than once as an idea’s “champion”, and stuck to that idea long after it had stopped making sense. Steggall, by contrast, seemed wedded less to an idea than to the electorate she hoped to represent. “As a barrister, you don’t represent your own views to the court, you represent the client,” she said at one point. “I think politics needs to be the same.”

That perspective was reflected when she criticised Abbott for abstaining from the marriage equality vote after the electorate of Warringah overwhelmingly voted Yes in the postal survey.

“The electorate felt absolutely abandoned by Mr. Abbott,” she said. “After having voted overwhelmingly in favour [of same-sex marriage], it was so disrespectful to see our elected member walk out of Parliament, and not reflect the views of the people of Warringah”.

In response, Abbott claimed that “I respected the electorate’s views by not voting against it”. Absence is not representation.

Steggall made her point clear once again in her closing statement. “I was really motivated to come and offer Warringah a choice, a choice for a new era,” she said. “This election is a referendum for Warringah — it’s your opportunity, whether you want to turn towards the past, or do you want to turn towards the future? Have progressive policies, and someone who actually wants to represent your views and concerns.”

“I want to be available to the people of Warringah. It will be an open door, it will be regular public forums so that you can share your views and concerns, and I can make sure I’m representing you in Canberra.”

None of this is to say that Steggall is perfect: she’s been criticised for several of her answers in the debate, from vagueness on the details of the climate policy she supports, to admitting to not having bought an electric vehicle or installed solar panels personally. And as for her promise of an open door policy, plenty of politicians have promised that before; it would be naive to assume that Steggall will necessarily be different.

Still, the Warringah debate showed that the difference between Steggall and Abbott comes down to that promise to listen. With Steggall, you get the impression that it’s possible to change her ideas — not because she’s weak or inconsistent, but because the idea of listening to her electorate is so core to her idea of politics.

“I’ve listened to you, now you can listen to me,” she said at one point, when Tony Abbott spoke over her. He kept speaking.

Sam Langford is Junkee’s News & Politics Reporter. Follow them on Twitter @_Slangers.