By Tim Montgomerie in Sydney
Follow Tim on Twitter
I’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,
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.