Underrated: Tony Abbott

Australia's no-nonsense leader is a lightning rod for progressive hatred

(illustration by Michael Daley)

Australia’s Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott, is the very model of a modern, muscular conservative: a younger, more athletic and informal version of his mentor, the equally underrated but highly successful John Howard. In its first nine months, Abbott’s coalition government has let the world know that Australia is “open for business”. He has restored control of the nation’s borders (ending illegal immigration by “boat people”), pledged to end what he calls “the age of entitlement”, restored Australia’s commitment to fiscal sustainability, increased defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, deregulated the university sector, and concluded major free-trade deals with Japan and Korea while advancing another with China.

He still faces an inherited fiscal challenge and an intense culture war. A formidable alliance of opponents has assembled against him: the Labor party, the leftist Greens, and a populist right-wing breakaway party led by a billionaire, Clive Palmer. 

Not a naturally charismatic politician, Abbott does not appease the progressive cultural establishment. He aims to win on merit of performance rather than political optics. He rose to power through his mastery of climate change politics: he has resolutely opposed policies that were threatening to wreck Australia’s economy — which depends on exporting natural resources and has high per capita carbon emissions — in a vain attempt to “lead the world”.

Abbott was so underestimated that he was deemed “unelectable” by Australia’s commentariat. His political strategy — building a coalition from the Right, including mortgage-belt families, social conservatives and libertarians who place economics ahead of their liberal social views — was deemed impossible. But he has done it.

The radical underestimation of Abbott reveals the disconnect between cultural elites and ordinary Australians. Over two election cycles, the “unelectable” Abbott brought Labor’s primary vote to its lowest level in 100 years, 33.4 per cent. Labor’s melodrama (including sacking a sitting prime minister) played its part, yet these were forced errors made under pressure from Abbott.

Abbott is an unreconstructed “man’s man”, standing up for the old values and institutions: religion, the military, the monarchy, physical fitness and public service. He is a long-standing volunteer firefighter, lifeguard and teacher in Aboriginal communities. His traditionalism makes him a hate figure of the Left. He is reviled as a “loudmouth bigot”, a “homophobe, a blinkered Vatican warrior, rugger-bugger, the white Australian and the junkyard dog of parliament”.

When the former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard charged Abbott with misogyny, it gained traction until Australia met his intelligent wife, three impressive and glamorous daughters, and his highly effective female chief of staff, Peta Credlin. A more legitimate criticism is the dearth of female cabinet ministers, but his deputy Julie Bishop is proving an effective foreign minister.

Abbott’s policy approach is to balance symbolism with practical action. In indigenous affairs, this means a referendum to include Aboriginals in the constitution and conditional welfare, based on children attending school and parents working.

Born in Britain, this Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford boxing blue once waxed lyrical about the anglosphere. Now he focuses mainly on Australia’s role in Asia — though he reintroduced Australian knights and dames, calling them “a grace note” in Australia’s national life. He wants to rebalance war commemoration away from defeat in Gallipoli to victory on the Western Front in 1918.

Increased defence spending underlines Abbott’s concerns about deteriorating security in the Indo-Pacific. Australia will remain a strong ally of the United States, but Abbott, a strong friend of Israel, is also strengthening alliances with Japan, Indonesia, Korea and India.

Abbott’s most dangerous challenge is the tougher times facing Australia as the resource boom fades. The lucky country has been living beyond its means for decades, but no one thought to tell the Australian people. Fiscal deterioration was masked by the trade boom as China urbanised. With commodity prices now falling, revenues have been caught short, finding Australians unprepared for cuts in entitlements. As protesters take to the streets in their tens of thousands, Abbott’s poll ratings are sinking and he faces a hostile Senate.

Abbott has made himself a lightning-rod for progressive hatred. Still, this champion of the common man may grow in the job and prevail. But don’t count on it. If the winds change in the culture wars — as they did in 2007, when John Howard lost — there will be battles he cannot win. Or if China’s economy lands too hard, Australia will find it impossible to extend its 21-year-streak of economic growth. Abbott has just two years before he faces re-election. That may be a bob and weave beyond even this prizefighter.

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