Australia’s prime minister-elect, Tony Abbott, declared the country “under new management” today after his conservative Coalition won a resounding victory in elections that ended six years of Labor rule and delivered the party’s worst result since the 1930s.
With three-quarters of votes counted, the Liberal-National Coalition was on course to win 89 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives, compared with 57 for Labor. Final results in the Senate will not be known for days, but the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – who had campaigned from his bolt-hole in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – now looks unlikely to win a seat in Victoria.
However, another of the election’s colourful characters, the mining tycoon Clive Palmer, looked set to win a seat in the lower house against all odds and expectations. Mr Palmer, who last week declared Rupert Murdoch’s estranged wife, Wendi Deng, a Chinese spy, is building a replica of the Titanic and installing life-size dinosaur models on the golf course of his five-star resort on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
While Labor held on to some of the seats it was predicted to lose –including the Sydney constituency where the Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz disappeared from public view after a humiliating TV interview – its primary vote fell to a historic low of 34 per cent. “I gave it my all, but it was not enough for us to win,” said the outgoing Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who announced he was stepping down as party leader.
A former boxer, Rhodes scholar and Catholic seminarian, Mr Abbott, 55, was greeted by ecstatic cries of “Tony! Tony! We love you, Tony” from Liberal Party supporters as he entered the ballroom at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel. The start of his victory speech, in which he said Australia was “once more open for business”, was almost drowned out by cheers and applause.
Earlier, Mr Rudd received an equally rapturous reception from Labor supporters gathered at the “Gabba” cricket ground in Brisbane, his home city. In fact, so loud were the shouts of “Kevin! Kevin!” that his first remark was: “Jeez, I thought we’d lost.”
In a gracious speech conceding defeat (but omitting any mention of his predecessor, Julia Gillard, whom he deposed in June), he wished Mr Abbott well “in coping with the stresses and strains of high office”. Mr Rudd, who held his own seat against the forecasts of some polls, said he was quitting the leadership, because “the Australian people, I believe, deserve a fresh start”.
That move finally drew a line under the long-running feud between Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard, which had poisoned Labor politics for the past three years, and contributed in no small measure to the election loss.
Ms Gillard, who has left parliament, tweeted: “A tough night for Labor. But a spirited fight by Kevin … + the whole team. My thoughts are with you all. JG.”
Mr Abbott – who was accompanied at the Four Seasons by his wife, Margie, and three daughters, Louise, Frances and Bridget – has promised to abolish an unpopular carbon tax, stem the flow of asylum-seeker boats, cut public service jobs and build new motorways.
In a much-criticised move, he will also slash billions of dollars from the foreign aid budget. Foreign policy barely rated a mention during the campaign, but – like just about every Australian government – the Coalition can be expected to maintain good relations with the US while cultivating relationships with its major trading partners in Asia. Julie Bishop, who will be the new foreign minister, is to visit Indonesia soon to discuss action on asylum-seekers. Indonesia is the main transit country.
A social conservative who once called abortion “the easy way out” and spoke of the impact of rising electricity prices on “the housewives of Australia”, Mr Abbott was accused by Ms Gillard in a celebrated speech to parliament last year of rampant sexism and misogyny. His wife sprang to his defence, calling him a “feminist” and “softie” who cried at the movies.
The prime minister-elect – he will be sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, next week – is a climate change sceptic who has described the science as “absolute crap”. A fitness fanatic who runs marathons and competes in triathlons, he also volunteers as a firefighter and surf lifesaver.
If Mr Palmer, leader of the newly formed Palmer United Party, does win the Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax, he is certain to liven up lower house proceedings. The Wendi Deng assertion was just the latest in a series of outrageous claims, including that the Australian Greens party is funded by the CIA.
“Clive Palmer and parliamentary privilege promises to be a fascinating combination,” tweeted Michael Rowland, an ABC TV journalist.