Tony Abbott: Is this the man to fix up Australia?

Barring a major catastrophe, this cringeworthy conservative will be the country’s next Prime Minister. Kathy Marks goes on the campaign trail with him

The sign inside the timber and hardware shop left no doubt about the owners’ political allegiance. “Special Order: Tony Abbott Victory on Saturday,” it read.

On a swing through Labor-held marginal seats in Sydney which his conservative Liberal Party hopes to snatch this weekend, Mr Abbott was greeted not merely as Australia’s probable next prime minister, but as the Messiah.

At the Flemington fruit and vegetable market, Nio Barbaro, an egg producer, knelt down at his feet. “Are you the man? We need you to fix this country up. Are you the man?” he demanded. “Yes, mate,” Mr Abbott replied – at which the elderly Italian stood up, grasped the opposition leader’s head with both hands and planted a kiss on his forehead.

The sprawling market in Sydney’s west – among the world’s largest – throbbed with love for a man who once seemed unelectable but now, according to opinion polls, is heading for a decisive victory. The latest poll, published in The Australian this week, put his Liberal-National Coalition eight points ahead of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party.

Mr Abbott, though, is leaving nothing to chance. At each of his campaign stops today, he reminded Australians that, in order to elect a new government, they need to get themselves to a polling station on Saturday and vote for one of the Coalition parties.

At each stop, too, he repeated the same slogans – slogans so familiar now that he seems to have been declaiming them for months. A Coalition government will “scrap the carbon tax, end the waste, stop the boats and build the roads of the 21st century”.

The carbon tax, levied on the carbon dioxide emissions of big polluters, was the single most unpopular measure introduced by Mr Rudd’s predecessor, Julia Gillard. Critics blame it for soaring gas and electricity prices. The “waste” refers to the Labor government’s spending.

The boats, carrying asylum-seekers, will be stopped through various deterrents should the Coalition win power – but if necessary, they will be turned around at sea and sent back to Indonesia. And the congestion in Australia’s rapidly growing cities will be addressed through a major road-building programme.

At the market, Mr Abbott helped to conduct a charity auction of the season’s first tray of mangoes – a Flemington tradition. As he posed for photographs with stall-holders and shoppers, one woman yelled: “Lead us to victory, Tony!” Forklift drivers beeped their appreciation.

Tony Abbott trods the campaign trail in Sydney (AP) Tony Abbott trods the campaign trail in Sydney (AP)  

Pessimists noted that the mangoes, which he temptingly held out to the crowd, sold for only A$30,000 (£17,628), despite the auctioneer declaring: “These have been touched by the incoming prime minister. Surely that adds value.” Last year, the first tray sold for A$50,000. While Mr Abbott may represent a saviour to some, he clearly lacks the Midas touch.

It would appear, though, that even the cringeworthy remarks to which the Liberal leader seems prone are not harming his prospects at this stage of the campaign. In the latest such instance, he told contestants in the Big Brother reality show, closeted in a television studio set on Queensland’s Gold Coast, that “if you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad-looking daughters”.

The video message – which he delivered with his arms around two of those three daughters, Frances and Bridget – was one of four pre-recorded by party leaders.

The pair were clearly embarrassed to hear him praise their looks. Several of the housemates, meanwhile, looked appalled, watching from behind their hands.

“Weird,” one pronounced. Another, male, declared: “I like the one on the left.”

The pitches were supposed to help the contestants, who have been locked away for seven weeks, make up their minds before casting postal votes.

It was all very reminiscent of Mr Abbott’s recent observation that Fiona Scott, the Liberal candidate for Lindsay, has “a bit of sex appeal”. He revisited the scene of that crime today, with Ms Scott in tow, and rolled out the pork barrel once last time. A key road in Lindsay, a bellwether Sydney seat where Labor’s margin is just 1 per cent, will receive a A$35m upgrade if the Coalition wins power.

Also accompanying him in Penrith, the regional town at the heart of Lindsay, was Stuart Ayres, the local state Liberal MP who won his seat with a nearly 26 per cent swing at a 2010 by-election. At that time, conservatives were thin on the ground in western Sydney, which used to be a solidly working-class area, and Ayres’s colleagues jokingly called him “West Berlin… the little blue dot in the sea of red”.

At a state election in 2011, more seats in Sydney’s west fell to the Liberals, and at local government elections last year the party seized control of numerous councils, installing Liberal mayors. Now it hopes to complete the region’s political shift with federal gains. And, if it prevails in this crucial electoral battleground, victory is assured nationwide.

Abbott with his wife Margaret and daughters Bridget (right) and Frances (Getty) Abbott with his wife Margaret and daughters Bridget (right) and Frances (Getty)  

At Penrith City Council’s offices, Mr Abbott defended Ms Scott’s remarks in a TV documentary about Lindsay aired this week, in which she linked asylum-seekers with traffic jams and hospital waiting lists. “Fiona Scott is a really outstanding candidate,” he declared. And would Ms Scott herself care to comment? “I reiterate with what Tony said earlier,” she replied.

At the hardware shop in Matraville, near Sydney’s busy port region, the opposition leader mingled with “tradies” (tradesmen), and was shown how to create one of Dulux’s most popular colours, Antique White USA – you mix ochre, red and black – by the resident paint specialist, Elias Reuben.

Like his bosses, Mr Reuben, 58, is an Abbott fan. “We all want a change. Australians have woken up to themselves and learnt from their mistakes,” he said. Comparing Mr Rudd – slightly obscurely – with the captain of the Titanic, he added: “You can’t take anything for granted. The captain said his ship was unsinkable, and see what happened to him.”

The shop is in the constituency of Kingsford Smith, where a man with genuine rock star appeal – Peter Garrett, former lead singer of the band Midnight Oil – has been the MP for nine years. Mr Garrett is retiring, along with a crowd of fellow Labor politicians, most of whom made the decision to quit after Mr Rudd deposed Ms Gillard in June. A heart surgeon, Michael Fenely, hopes to snare the seat for the Liberals.

Until recently, Mr Abbott’s personal ratings were poor, reflecting voters’ ambivalence – they were fed up with Labor, but didn’t trust the devout Roman Catholic, largely because of his social conservatism and apparently antediluvian views on women. While he has not shaken off that image, the polls suggest Australians are ready to take a gamble on him.

“Yes, I’m confident, but I’m not cocky or complacent, because anything can happen in these last few days,” he told one radio interviewer. “That’s why I keep saying to people: ‘Don’t think for a minute that it’s home and hosed.’”

“Home and hosed” is Australian for home and dry, which is where Tony Abbott – notwithstanding his understandable caution, and barring some unforeseen catastrophe – will be on Saturday.

people And here is why...
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
Life and Style
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

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?