August 19, 2010 5:53 pm

‘Mad monk’ has a shot at becoming PM

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Tony Abbott’s risk-averse and tightly managed poll campaign has not only elevated him from his status as an underdog, but Australia’s opposition leader is now within striking distance of a victory at this weekend’s election.

Dubbed the “mad monk” because of his period studying to be a Roman Catholic priest, the 53-year-old leader of the centre-right coalition is on a final blitz among marginal seats that will determine whether he can defeat Julia Gillard’s first-term Labor government.

On Thursday, Mr Abbott dismissed as Labor party propaganda opinion polls that found the government could win the popular vote but lose the election on the back of a rout in New South Wales and Queensland marginal seats.

“I’m taking nothing for granted,” he said. “It’s probably just more spin from a bad government.”

Mr Abbott’s shot at becoming prime minister is remarkable given that he has led his party for less than nine months, most of which time he was not considered a contender.

A global-warming sceptic, he took the helm after a Liberal party brawl when the former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull tried to back the government’s climate-change policy.

Since June, Mr Abbott’s political fortunes have been burnished by another party disagreement, this time within the Labor ranks, as Kevin Rudd was deposed as prime minister before the end of his maiden term.

Ms Gillard’s honeymoon as prime minister was shattered by a fresh bout of Labor back-stabbing and leaking, boosting Mr Abbott’s standing.

Mr Abbott’s focus during the five-week campaign has been on winding back government initiatives rather than promoting fresh policies. Under his leadership, the government’s A$43bn ($39bn, €30bn, £25bn) national broadband network roll-out and watered-down resources tax would be abandoned and he has promised not to introduce a carbon tax.

Mr Abbott has portrayed Labor as a profligate, high-taxing and incompetent government that has built up excessive debts and budget deficits. These messages have resonated with an electorate accustomed to budget surpluses and low debt.

He has also blamed the government for a rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat and vowed to toughen up Australia’s border. He has proudly stated that his first act as prime minister will be to call the leader of Nauru to set up a detention centre on the island for seaborne asylum-seekers.

David Burchell, an author and lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, says Mr Abbott has been lucky with his timing but his political skills have been underestimated because of the media’s obsession with his sometimes controversial views.

The married father of three is a staunch advocate of traditional family values, and is a long-time opponent of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage. He is also gaffe-prone, admitting this year he doesn’t always tell the “gospel” truth.

“He has had to temper his social conservative views,” Mr Burchell said. “At the same time he has had to advance on the economic conservative front.

“But it’s been said by people like Peter Costello [former Liberal government treasurer] that he doesn’t have an economic bone in his body.”

Paul Kelly, Australia’s veteran political commentator, said Mr Abbott had performed well this week at a public gathering in Brisbane where he fielded questions for an hour.

“He offered prudence, personal conviction and the humility of the common man,” Mr Kelly observed.

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