The Liberal leader didn’t triumph from a natural position of strength. In 2010, he led Australia’s Liberal-National coalition to a razor-thin defeat, despite unprecedented turmoil atop his competitor’s party. If modern Australian history were any guide, Abbott would’ve slunk off to the back benches, licked his wounds, and hoped his mates would give him another shot at leadership in a future election. And the party would’ve changed tack.
Instead, the Liberals rallied around Abbott, who doubled down on his message of the virtues of smaller government, lower taxes, a balanced budget, and above all, a promise to roll back a crippling carbon tax, which has raised Australia’s electricity prices to some of the highest in the developed world. “Scrap the carbon tax, end the waste, stop the boats and build the infrastructure,” Abbott told ABC’s Leigh Sales just before the election, smiling. It was the same simple message, and variations thereof, he had repeated ad nauseam from Perth to Melbourne. It was a message aimed squarely at blue collar workers who aspired for more—the so-called “battlers” who had supported the last conservative government.
Abbott had a remarkably long time to hone his pitch. Most opposition leaders last about a year, but the Liberals kept Tony for three years because they had tried the centrist route, with disastrous results. After losing power in 2007 to Kevin Rudd, a robotic former bureaucrat from Brisbane, the conservatives chose Brendan Nelson, a stately doctor from the north shores of Sydney. Nelson embraced the then-trendy climate-change hysteria and the need for fiscal stimulus as a bulwark against the global financial crisis.
The next leader, Malcolm Turnbull, a smooth-talking banker who hailed from Sydney’s tony Wentworth constituency, fared even worse. He dragged the party even more to the left, and the Liberals sank further in the polls. When Abbott challenged the telegenic Turnbull, he won by a hair, prompting snickers from his opponents. But it was then the party’s fortunes finally started to improve, as Abbott pulled the Liberals back to the right. Perhaps only a former Oxford blue and a fanatical sportsman who regularly trots out marathon-length bike rides, swims and runs, was the only man in the party who could physically endure such an elongated political fight.
Skeptics will argue that Abbott didn’t win the election, but rather, the Labor Party lost it. Certainly no Australian government since World War II has been as divided, nor suffered as many leadership challenges. After Rudd took over Kirribilli House in 2007, he enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings in history, only to be knifed in a backdoor coup in 2010 by his deputy, Julia Gillard. Rudd never sat quietly on the backbench, and challenged for the leadership twice before winning it back this summer. The leadership tussles made it difficult for Labor to portray an image to the public of strength and competence.
But then again, their policies didn’t inspire much voter loyalty, either. Under the Rudd-Gillard mantle, Canberra reregulated its labor market, turned a federal budget surplus into a deficit (albeit a far smaller one than America or Britain suffers from), demonized and taxed the country’s most productive industry (mining), installed a punishing carbon tax that forced energy prices up, and presided over a bungling administrative state that allowed fraud and waste to proliferate, especially given the flood of money pushed into stimulus programs.
Australians hadn’t seen such a mess since the Whitlam days in the 1970s. Nor was Rudd, a particularly warm or likeable character. The Labor Party, which usually draws from career unionists or party hacks, only tolerated him in the interest of winning government. Australians were treated to stories of him bawling out a female flight attendant, mistreating his aides, and cursing at length while filming a video for his foreign affairs office. Not exactly a statesmanlike fellow, no matter how many selfies he posted on Twitter in an effort to “connect” with the average punter.
Abbott, by contrast, didn’t need to construct a political personality to commune with the public. He comes off as an Australian version of the everyman; the bloke who likes to play sports, cheer his local rugby team, throw a sausage on the barbie, and spend time with his family. His aides tried to rein in his off-the-cuff cracks but often failed.
Abbott’s first task as prime minister will be confronting a widening budget deficit, growing regional and international tensions including Syria, and an electorate that has become accustomed to economic success and expanding government largesse. While not entirely a poisoned chalice, Abbott will hope his honeymoon lasts longer than the man he is likely to replace as Australia’s leader.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit AFP-Tony Abbot photo