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.

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