Tony Abbott: Australia’s prime minister in waiting polarises his party and voters

He is ruthless yet charming; hardline yet loyal and engages with Aboriginal Australia perhaps more than any other political leader

Shortly after Australia’s conservative Liberal Party elected Tony Abbott as its leader in late 2009, one federal MP reportedly exclaimed: “God almighty! What have we done?” Within nine months, Abbott had seen off one of the nation’s most popular prime ministers, Kevin Rudd, whose poll ratings plummeted, and almost defeated Rudd’s Labor successor, Julia Gillard. Yet even now, three weeks out from a likely election win, some of his own colleagues are still deeply ambivalent about him – and so are many voters.

A ruthless student politician who dabbled with the priesthood; a Rhodes scholar who regards climate change as “absolute crap”; a Jesuit-educated volunteer firefighter and fitness fanatic; a dogmatic, abrasive yet intensely loyal man who engages with Aboriginal Australia perhaps more than any other political leader – Tony Abbott is a mass of contradictions.

The single biggest influence on his life, values and politics is the Catholic Church – and a particular brand linked to a now defunct offshoot of the Labor Party which was virulently anti-Communist, socially ultra-conservative and strongly pro-social justice.

Some still consider him more wedded to the ideals of that Democratic Labor Party, with which he was initially associated, than to Liberal philosophies. “With those roots, he instinctively understands Labor’s core voters, and some of their fears and aspirations,” says John McTernan, a former Tony Blair adviser who was Gillard’s communications director. “That makes him a formidable opponent for Labor.”

To progressives, Abbott – who is close to the arch-conservative Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney – is a social reactionary and religious nut, and they dread what havoc he will wreak in office. (The Liberals, in coalition with the National Party, are a few points ahead of Labor in the polls.)

This is, after all, the man who called abortion “the easy way out”, who spoke of the impact of electricity prices on “the housewives of Australia … as they do the ironing”, who declared he would advise his three daughters that their virginity was “the greatest gift that you can give someone”, and who provoked Gillard’s celebrated speech to parliament last year denouncing him for misogyny and sexism.

Born in London in 1957, Tony Abbott – whose parents moved to Australia when he was three – had a comfortable upbringing on Sydney’s leafy north shore. He attended a prestigious Jesuit college, and was apparently always destined for greatness; his mother was fond of saying he would either become prime minister or pope.

He himself could not quite decide which, it seems. At Sydney University, he waged an aggressive campaign to break the leftists’ domination of student politics. After a spell at Oxford, where he earned a boxing blue, he entered a Catholic seminary in Sydney, but left after three years and married his wife, Margie. In 1994, he was elected to parliament, where he was a minister in John Howard’s government.

After Howard was toppled by Rudd in 2007, the Liberal Party fell into disarray. Abbott transformed its fortunes, and won the admiration even of political foes for his relentless, effective pursuit of Rudd, then Gillard, and the discipline he imposed on himself and the party.

According to Norm Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University, the former pugilist has never relinquished the “take no hostages mentality” of his days in student politics. A close Liberal ally says: “For Tony Abbott, it’s not about how many punches you throw or receive, it’s about how often you get knocked down and get back up.”

“He has a firm handshake and a gimlet intensity that has never left him,” says Abjorensen. “It’s all about Tony Abbott winning, whatever it takes. People who played rugby with him [at university] said he’d do anything to win – bend the rules, break the rules. It was the same with his boxing, and so with his politics. The only job he really aspired to was the top job. He has unwavering ambition, and enormous self-belief.”

The strident views, rigid ideology and unwillingness to compromise alienate many. But he is also a man of great charm, with a capacity for self-examination. For him, politics is a higher calling. According to David Marr, a journalist and author who wrote a landmark essay about him last year: “He has a quixotic nature … He sees himself as a knight in shining armour, on a mission to do good.”

For Marr, there is perpetual tension between the would-be priest with the hardline attitudes and the pragmatic politician, but the latter will always triumph, he believes.

For that to happen, Abbott has to keep a tight lid on some of his most fervently held views, as well as his natural impulsiveness. Since narrowly losing the 2010 election, which resulted in Gillard’s minority  government, he has largely succeeded – although he has had his unguarded moments, such as this week, when he highlighted the “sex appeal” of a female candidate, and described same-sex marriage as “a fashion of the moment”.

Abjorensen believes the raw, unvarnished Abbott “emerges in those so-called slips of the tongue”. McTernan, who calls him “one of the most effective political leaders I’ve come across”, says: “He found his faith, values and ideas in his 20s, and has never changed them … He just no longer talks about the unpopular ones.” Others say he has moderated his views.

In public, he is as likely to be seen in cycling lycra or swimming trunks as in a business suit. A triathlete and marathon runner, he pursues a punishing fitness regime with the same zeal as everything else. Abjorensen calls it “a form of physical exhibitionism … constantly reinforcing his macho image”. Touring the country, Abbott likes to visit factories and don a hard hat, or jump in a truck driver’s cab. One intriguing trait is his commitment to improving Aboriginal lives – which Marr attributes to his upbringing and Catholicism.

As for what kind of prime minister he would be, no one is sure. It’s hard to imagine him making the transition from attack dog to statesman. His policies remain piecemeal and vague. He will be tough on refugees, tough on welfare claimants. He will bring the budget back to surplus. He will abolish Gillard’s carbon tax and a tax on mining companies’ profits. He will introduce a generous paid parental leave scheme.

Marr believes he will be cautious in his first term. “The fears of a lot of people that he’ll go in there like Attila the Hun and rampage across the political landscape are quite misplaced.”

A Life In Brief

Born: Anthony John Abbott, 4 November 1957, London. The family moved to Sydney when he was three, under the “Ten Pound Pom” assisted passage scheme.

Family: Eldest child of English-born Dick, a dentist, and Australian Fay Peters, a dietician. Married Margaret Aitken in 1988; they have three daughters.

Education: St Ignatius College, a Jesuit college in Sydney. Graduated in economics and law from Sydney University. Rhodes Scholar at Queen’s College, Oxford. Three years at Sydney’s St Patrick’s Seminary

Career: Ran the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy before entering federal parliament in 1994. Was Health Minister in John Howard’s government. He became the Liberal Party and opposition leader in 2009.

He says: “I don’t think there’s much mystery about me and my public life, because it’s been an open book.”

They say: “Between his belfry-bat ears is a coil of such saturnine weirdness that no one, not even his closest friends, would want to unravel it.”  Writer Louis Nowra.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference