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.

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