Australia's next PM? The thinking man's 'mad-dog rugger bugger'

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 05, 2013 5:02 PM
Australia's next PM? The thinking man's 'mad-dog rugger bugger'

By James Grubel

CANBERRA (Reuters) - If anybody had a good reason to dislike Australia's conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, poised to be elected prime minister on Saturday, it would be author Bob Ellis.

Abbott and former treasurer Peter Costello successfully sued Ellis's publishers for defamation over a book that touched on their days in student politics written by the long-time Labor Party figure, forcing the book to be pulped and costing Ellis's backers more than $500,000.

But that legal skirmish didn't stop Abbott, years later, from helping to promote another Ellis book and then joining the author for a discussion about their opposing views.

"He'd become opposition leader only three days before, and I didn't expect him to turn up. But he did," Ellis told Reuters, adding Abbott's ability to put aside past differences had led to a grudging admiration for his former foe.

That inclination to forget a grievance and move on should help make Abbott an effective leader of what could at times be a fractious ruling coalition that will have to tackle a slowing economy, rising unemployment and a budget in the red.

Ellis might be scathing on some of Abbott's policies, but he says the conservative leader has a deep intellect with many public personas.

"One of them is a mad-dog rugger-bugger, slightly brain damaged boxing blue. One of them is extremely thoughtful, literary man with a majestically good writing style," he said. "He's a seriously good conservative thinker."

That appraisal of Abbott contrasts with his image as a super-fit pugilistic tough guy who, like former U.S. President George W. Bush, is prone to the occasional loose comment and malapropism.

Abbott attracted election headlines for saying he was not the "suppository of all wisdom", while his comment that a female candidate had "sex appeal" revived criticism that he was an out-of-touch sexist more at home in the 1950s.

His simplistic assessment of the conflict in Syria also drew fire from opponents.

"It is not goodies versus baddies, it is baddies versus baddies," he said.


Born in London where his father was studying, Abbott, 55, is a socially conservative Catholic who studied law and economics at Sydney University, where he cut his teeth in the rough and tumble of student politics.

He won a Rhodes scholarship and completed a master's degree at Britain's Oxford University, where he won a "blue", or top award, for boxing, before returning to Australia to study to be a priest.

"I wasn't 'naturally devout', at least in the ways necessary to sustain life as a priest. Not consoled by heartfelt prayer. I couldn't imagine being celibate for the rest of my life," he wrote of his decision to leave the seminary.

He worked as a journalist and helped organize a strike at his news magazine when photographers were sacked, before joining Rupert Murdoch's flagship The Australian newspaper, writing editorials.

A self-confessed Anglophile, Abbott ran Australia's monarchist movement before he entered parliament in 1994, earning a reputation as a political attack dog under his mentor John Howard's government from 1996 until 2007.

One of those who remembers Abbott's take-no-prisoners style was a former Australian Democrats senator, and later a Labor Party lawmaker, Cheryl Kernot, who recalls Abbott speaking at a funeral about the need for people to love one another.

"Then he came straight back into the parliament and turned on his nastiest personal venom. I just got up and said what a complete hypocrite he was about his so-called Christian values," Kernot told Reuters.

Abbott's Liberal Party has worked hard over the past three years to tone down his tough-guy image.

Determined and disciplined are the words most used to describe Abbott, who exercises daily, often before dawn. He runs marathons, and spends a week each year cycling 1,000 km (620 miles) to raise money for charity.

"He's obviously a type A personality and he always likes to be in the leading group. I think that's no surprise to anybody," said cycling companion, long-term friend and former professional cyclist Stephen Hodge, who rode six times in the Tour de France.

"He likes going hard, he likes the challenge. He likes to give it a nudge."

Abbott has also been a volunteer surf lifesaver, and is an active member of his volunteer fire brigade, which responds to wildfires near his northern Sydney beachside home.

"The way he is depicted in the media sometimes is not the Tony Abbott that we know," fire brigade captain Trent Dowling says. "We know a bloke that will muck in, work his guts out all day, do whatever you ask of him."

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In late 2009, after two years in opposition, Abbott capitalized on divisions within his party over climate change to mount a challenge against then leader Malcolm Turnbull, who supported a carbon emissions trading scheme.

Abbott won the leadership by one vote, and then reversed his party's position to oppose any policy to price carbon, although he has said he accepts the science of global warming.

His relentless opposition to carbon pricing helped bring down Kevin Rudd's first period as prime minister, although Abbott failed to win a 2010 dead-heat election when the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, proved a better negotiator with a clutch of independents.

Gillard launched an attack on Abbott in late 2012, accusing him of being misogynist over a string of comments over the years, including a suggestion men might be better adapted to exercise authority, and for saying abortion was "the easy way out".

Abbott rejects the accusation of misogyny and, apparently in response, has stepped up appearances with his wife, Margie, and two of his adult daughters. They deny Abbott has any issues with strong, independent women. His powerful chief of staff is a woman, as is his deputy Liberal Party leader.

Abbott, who is close to Australia's top Catholic churchman, Cardinal George Pell, has moved to reassure voters that his Catholic beliefs would not dominate his political role.

Neither Abbott nor his party support gay marriage, but he has ruled out changing abortion laws or government funding for the abortion drug RU486.

"You've got to accept that there are all sorts of private views which can be passionately held," Abbott said in an ABC television interview. "But in a pluralist democracy such as ours the idea that you could somehow make those private views mandatory is bizarre, just bizarre."

(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Robert Birsel)