Tony Abbott profiled for The Sunday Times

2013-06-17 05.23.40 pm

Australia calls on ‘Action Man Abbo’

Boxer, firefighter, would-be priest: Tony Abbott is set to win th is week’s poll. He tells Nick Cater in Sydney of his political vision


from The Sunday Times, September 1, 2013

2013-09-03 05.41.31 amTHE one-sided election in Australia appears to be over bar the voting after the Labor party’s campaign descended into farce and the country’s largest online bookmaker began paying out on a victory for Tony Abbott, the conservative leader.

Saturday’s poll is expected to take on the flavour of a sort of coronation for Abbott, a former Oxford Blue, while Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, appears merely to be going through the motions. If it were a boxing match the referee would have already stopped the fight.

A poll published yesterday in The Australian newspaper shows that Labor has lost its grip on what was once its blue-collar heartland. If the party’s worst fears are realised, it could find itself with as few as 50 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

Seats it has held for half a century are likely to fall to the Liberal-National coalition, as Abbott outflanks Labor to win over middle Australia.

Labor is faring better in the inner-city seats, where university-educated professionals are more comfortable with its progressive ideals. Yet even there it faces the challenge of the Greens, who last time secured almost 12% of the national vote.

It is a far cry from the election six years ago when Rudd rode a popular wave to end 11 years of conservative government in a victory that had echoed Tony Blair’s triumph in Britain 10 years earlier.

Yet Rudd’s government in office was shambolic and at the mercy of his autocratic style. A panicked decision to replace him with Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, proved a disaster.

In June Labor MPs voted through gritted teeth to bring back Rudd. Yet he quickly returned to form, declaring last week that he was “in the vision business” and announcing ambitious schemes with little, if any, consultation with the ministers responsible.

Abbott’s pledge is merely a return to grown-up government, promising modestly that he expects voters to be “pleasantly surprised, rather than furiously disappointed”.

“Government cannot of itself work miracles,” he told The Sunday Times last week. “But what we can do is empower others to create small miracles in their own lives.”

Abbott was long considered unelectable by many commentators, having broken just about every rule in the book during his 19 years in parliament.

In 2009 when Rudd said climate change was the world’s “greatest moral and economic challenge” before the Copenhagen summit, Abbott broke from his party’s position and declared it was “absolute crap”.

He was narrowly elected as leader of his party that December and succeeded in unnerving the government with his combative parliamentary style while holding the opposition coalition together.

Born in London to Australian parents, Abbott has followed an eccentric career path, constantly forcing himself out of his own comfort zone and challenging the progressive orthodoxy.

At Sydney University he was elected president of the students’ council in 1978 on a platform of resistance to the fashionable causes he pilloried as “land rights for gay whales”.

A Rhodes Scholarship took him to Queen’s College, Oxford, in the early 1980s where, during a long night in the Eastgate hotel, he was recruited by a Jesuit friend into the university boxing team.

2013-09-03 05.42.15 amThe Oxford Mail dubbed him “Action Man Abbo” when he won a varsity match with a thrilling last-bout victory against his first heavyweight opponent, Bill Daniell, in March 1982. Abbott downed his opponent with a right hook after 45 seconds.

“I know nothing about boxing, so I decided to have a go at him,” he told the paper.

He never lost a fight in four encounters, the hardest being against a recently returned Falklands veteran.

“He was 15kg heavier than me, so under the rules I was given the opportunity to pull out,” said Abbott last week. “But since I was there I thought, what the heck.” He won on points.

On his return to Australia he applied to join the priesthood, before deciding that he was ill-suited for the task. He took to journalism, writing for The Bulletin, a now-defunct weekly, and The Australian, before joining the staff of the then opposition leader John Hewson.

After entering parliament in 1994 Abbott became the spokesman for the ultimately victorious Australians for Constitutional Monarchy in the 1999 referendum on a republic.

When his promotion to the cabinet in 1998 coincided with a ring of bushfires in Sydney, Abbott, a volunteer firefighter, found his loyalties torn and arrived late for his first cabinet meeting. “I was chipped [scolded] by a colleague who said, ‘Tony, you’re a cabinet minister now.’ My response was: you’ve got to be a human being before you can be a cabinet minister,” he recalled.

As party leader Abbott has shown remarkable discipline, curbing his wilder instincts and consciously trying to shake off his nickname of Captain Catholic. He noted that his first stirrings of civic duty came from Ladybird books about historical leaders such as Julius Caesar and Alfred the Great.

“I’m just very conscious of the fact that you’ve got very serious responsibilities to the party,” he said.

“And if we win the election I’ll just have the heaviest of all duties to the country.”

He has learnt to parry questions about his views on abortion; when it emerged last year that his sister, Christine Forster, was in a same-sex relationship he adroitly handled the apparent tension with his own anti-gay marriage stance.

“Getting judgmental in ways that damage relationships does no one any good,” he said in a newspaper interview.

Gillard, the former prime minister, famously labelled Abbott a misogynist in a passionate speech that included among his sexist crimes his glancing at his watch while she was on her feet in parliament.

Abbott’s strongest allies against these onslaughts have been his own family. Margaret, his wife, has become a convincing defender of him as a family man and two of his three daughters, Bridget and Frances, have travelled with him on the campaign trail.

Like his mentor John Howard, prime minister for 11 years until 2007, Abbott takes his case directly to the Australian people. “There is a real danger for politicians that we live in a bubble,” he said. “To some extent that’s unavoidable, but the more you can get outside the bubble the better.”

He spends a week every year teaching in classrooms in remote Aboriginal communities, forging a close partnership with their leaders.

He has pledged to continue this sojourn away from the cameras if he is elected prime minister and has put a referendum on a constitutional amendment to recognise indigenous people at the top of his agenda, saying: “Until this is done our country won’t be whole.”

Abbott’s opponents have tried to use his admission that he is an Anglophile to portray him as a forelock-tugging relic from the colonial past.

Abbott brushes it off. “Australia has taken its British inheritance and made the most of it,” he told The Sunday Times. “There are a few things from Britain that we have improved upon in this country, but nevertheless we are the inheritors of a fine tradition.”

His main foreign policy focus will be closer to home, however, and he has nominated Indonesia as the destination of his first overseas trip should he be elected.

“Europe remains a very important part of the world but, nevertheless, the relative weight of Europe is declining and the relative weight of the rest of the world is increasing,” he said.

Asked if Australia might enjoy a cricket-led recovery under an Abbott government, he delivers his trademark hearty laugh. “Yes, mate, of course,” he said.

“After the last thrashing we’ve got to do better.”