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Ten things you should know about Australia’s next prime minister, Tony Abbott

By Tim Montgomerie in Sydney
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Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 08.32.19I’m jumping the gun a bit. Australia doesn’t even vote until tomorrow but it’ll be one of the biggest shocks in the country’s electoral history if the incumbent Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, survives.

Here are ten things you should know about Tony Abbott, leader of the Conservative Party’s sister party in Australia.

1. He will defeat a government that has enjoyed good economic times: In the last year Australia has grown by 2.6% (easily enough to put a smile on George Osborne’s face). That’s the 22nd successive year of growth. Australia isn’t even close to losing its triple A status from ratings agencies. All governments get ejected eventually but, six years ago, Kevin Rudd led Labor to power as one of Australia’s most popular ever leaders. Rudd then boasted he was the prime minister who saved his country from the global recession and this resource-rich country did escape negative growth. But, according to every poll, Labor loses tomorrow’s general election and it will lose badly.

2. He’s a model Leader of the Opposition: Do you remember when David Cameron promised to end Punch and Judy politics? Even before he became leader of Australia’s Liberal Party (the Tories’ sister party, led by John Howard until ’07), Abbott embraced Punch’s pugilism. He ousted Malcolm Turnbull, his Liberal predecessor, who was preparing to back Rudd’s climate change agenda. Since becoming Leader of the Opposition in 2009 he has opposed Labor’s expensive carbon policies and its failure to control immigration. Labor became incredibly unpopular – first dumping Rudd for Gillard and then, hilariously, Gillard for Rudd

3. His four-fold message has focused on immigration, tax, infrastructure and above all, the carbon tax: Most politicians get bored with repeating the same message. Pundits needing to fill their pages or broadcast slots with ‘new news’ certainly do. Abbott doesn’t get bored. A man famous for his physical fitness he has the stamina to conquer arduous bike journeys and marathons. Knowing that voters only start to hear a message when politicians are sick to death of hearing themselves repeat it for the squillionth time he has stuck relentlessly to four big themes: Scrap the carbon tax; Stop the boats (via which illegal immigrants enter Australia); Cut taxes; and, more recently, Build new roads.

4. He’s a social conservative, not a social reactionary: His Catholicism has led him to take conservative positions on abortion and homosexuality and that frightens social liberals. Abbott’s personal views do not automatically become his political views, however. When he was health minister he did not ban or restrict abortion. Today he opposes gay marriage but his lesbian sister has campaigned for him and testified to his personal support for her. The most obvious fruit of his faith is his compassionate work. Every year he raises funds for charities with his sports activities. He spends a week with aboriginal Australians, undertaking community work. He and his wife support a shelter for abused women.

5. He’s not a shrink-the-state libertarian: If Abbott appeals to traditionalist conservatives on issues like immigration, climate change and tax he worries state minimalists. Ronald Reagan (who actually maintained a pretty sizeable government himself) once joked that one of the biggest ever lies was ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’. That’s not Abbott’s view. He has said that market liberalism is not the only conservative value. After announcing a subsidy for a chocolate factory in a hard-pressed part of Australia he insisted that jobs and fairness were also integral to conservatism. His colleagues joke that when he was Health Minister in the Howard government he couldn’t open his mouth without arguing for AUS$10 million of extra spending. In this campaign he has promised one of the most generous parental leave programmes in the world and has defended doing so by arguing that the family deserves steadfast support from conservatives. Joe Hockey, Abbott’s finance minister, is more of an economic liberal and will ensure that an LNP government does move towards budget surplus but few should expect a radical shrinkage of Australian government. 

6. He’ll be an Anglosphere prime minister: Rudd attacked Abbott for his obsession with Britain and the Anglosphere in his autobiographical book, ‘Battlelines’. During the campaign Abbott has attempted to combat this by promising to visit all of the Asian region’s capitals before visiting London or Washington, notably Beijing. Few doubt where Abbott’s heart lies, however. Educated at Oxford and a devotee of Margaret Thatcher he’s a monarchist and Eurosceptic. He reportedly hates Theodore Dalrymple’s books because he hates their gloomy portrait of a Britain that he so loves. Australia is a medium-sized power but Abbott promises to restore defence spending to 2% of national income and maintain – without increasing – aid spending.

7. He has learnt pragmatism: He’s nicknamed the ‘Mad Monk’ – partly because he once pursued the idea of a Catholic vocation but also because of his combative style and his strongly-held views on social policy. In his earlier life he was heavily influenced by the Catholic thinker "Bob" Santamaria. His immersion in Catholic Social Teaching almost led him into the Labor party and in his support for government-funded solidarity policies that influence is still evident. If Abbott was ever ‘Mad’ he’s less mad today! Close observers say he has learnt pragmatism – partly from his career’s mistakes. He is close to Mark Textor, the polling half of the Crosby-Textor agency, and carefully studies public opinion.

8. No, he isn’t stoopid: Abbott is well known for his streetwise talk and aggressive parliamentary style. Some interpret his populist streak as a sign of limited intelligence and take his occasional Bushisms as proof of their suspicions. Abbott is no fool, however. This Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar writes nearly all of his big speeches – a rare thing for a contemporary politician. Unable to fault his grasp of policy in parliament his opponents have resorted to cheap sliming. He has been accused of misogyny, a charge that caught the British media’s attention but failed to gain traction in Australia. 

9. He devotes enormous time to party management: Additional to the last point, one of his great skills is party management. Modern party leaders have to be good on the telly, masters of strategy and policy and possess charisma. Because of fracturing on the Right and Left, increasingly important is party management. He manages a party with enormous breadth. There’s Malcolm Turnbull and the economic and social liberals on one side and Barnaby Joyce and the economic nationalists and social traditionalists on the other. He also tolerates difference. When state premiers from his own party take a different view his response, to use an Ozzy colloquialism, is ‘no dramas’. His internal coalition has been incredibly disciplined over the last few years. Even when Rudd ousted Julia Gillard in June and Abbott’s opinion poll lead (temporarily) evaporated there was no panic. Abbott follows John Howard’s 50/50 rule – spend at least as much time looking after your existing supporters as wooing floating voters.

10. We don’t exactly know what kind of prime minister he’ll be: Abbott has no great plan to reverse Australia’s declining productivity or growth in entitlements. He will aim, like his mentor John Howard, to be boringly competent rather than revolutionary. He will also have to remain or become even more collegiate. Many colleagues still resent the way they feel they were bounced into the expensive parental leave policy. Rudd ultimately failed because he thought he knew it all and failed to be collegiate. Tony Abbott can’t afford to make the same mistake. My hunch is that he won’t.


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