Former boxer Tony Abbott was well-placed to become Australia’s next prime minister until he was caught by a sucker punch: an unexpected change of opponent. The aftermath has shown his ability to fight back.
Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition led in polls by as much as 6 percentage points before Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd in June as head of the Labor government and watered down Rudd’s unpopular mining tax proposal.
Gillard quickly moved into a 10-point lead and called an election for Aug. 21. Abbott has clawed his way back to even in the latest poll by portraying himself as a father of three daughters who is more in tune with families’ economic challenges than the childless, unmarried Gillard.
“He’s got a mortgage, he doesn’t drive a flash car,” said David Oldfield, a former Abbott aide who hosts a radio show in Sydney. “He’s a family man who you could sit down and have a beer with.”
The election may turn on who is viewed as better equipped to sustain a A$1.2 trillion ($1.1 trillion) economy that skirted the global recession, said Gwen Gray, a Canberra-based political analyst at Australian National University.
Australia has had 18 unbroken years of growth and the world’s best-performing major currency of the past eight years, according to Bloomberg data. Much of that performance has been achieved by selling iron ore, coal and other commodities, primarily to China, the fastest-growing major economy. The Labor Party has been in charge since Rudd defeated the coalition in 2007.
Abbott, 52, has promised to scrap Gillard’s planned 30 percent levy on profits at larger mining companies such as Melbourne-based BHP Billiton Ltd. She scaled back Rudd’s proposal of a 40 percent tax on all resources companies to win industry backing.
Abbott began the only televised debate with Gillard, 48, on July 25 by saying he and wife Margie knew what it was like to raise a family and “wrestle” with house payments, school fees and grocery bills.
The next day his wife, a child-care manager, joined him for the first time on the campaign as he outlined tax breaks for such services. A day later, daughter Louise posed with him as he scaled fish.
“Family status shouldn’t be at stake,” Abbott told reporters in Mackay, Queensland on July 27. “Gender shouldn’t be at stake. It’s simply the policies and the competence which are the issues in this campaign.”
While Gillard says she is “wistful” about not having children, according to an interview published in the August edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine, she dismissed family status as irrelevant.
“If a woman had presented as prime minister with a large number of children, people would have then said ‘How on earth is she going to give the job the focus it’s going to need?’” Gillard said. “I’m comfortable with the choices I have made.”
The family-man image resonates with some voters, such as David Kemp, managing director of B.D.S. Group, a Brisbane-based company that sells shop fittings and donated A$59,190 to the Labor Party in 2008-09, records show.
“The prime minister should be a man who is married with kids,” Kemp said by phone from Brisbane. “I won’t give any money to Labor this year, and Abbott represents what a lot of people want -- someone who relates to families.”
Abbott’s campaign policies include clamping down on refugees bidding to reach Australia by boat from Southeast Asia, and tax breaks for private school fees and uniforms.
He has proposed a 1.5 percentage point cut in the corporate tax rate to 28.5 percent, to offset a 1.5 percent levy on big businesses to pay for a six-month paid parental-leave plan. Laws passed by the Labor Party in June give parents up to 18 weeks of government-paid leave from Jan. 1 at the minimum wage.
Abbott is making the country’s rising debt and Labor’s determination to tax mining companies central to his campaign. In the debate with Gillard, he criticized the “obscene waste” of a A$42 billion economic stimulus and said the coalition, which paid off A$96 billion of debt during an 11-year stint in government, is better able to put Australia back in the black.
The Labor Party and the coalition were tied at 50 percent in a canvassing of party preferences, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on Aug. 2. The telephone survey of 1,137 people had a 3-point error margin. The same poll showed 50 percent of respondents preferred Gillard as prime minister, down from 57 percent two weeks earlier, with preference for Abbott rising to 35 percent from 27 percent.
Voters rank party candidates in order of preference under the nation’s electoral system, and the result depends on who can win a majority in the 150-member House of Representatives.
The Labor Party faced a backlash in the nation’s most populous state, New South Wales, and in Rudd’s home state of Queensland, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper today. The telephone survey of 3,437 people had an error margin of up to 3.8 percentage points. The backlash was big enough for Labor to lose the election, the paper said.
Abbott grew up in Sydney, the oldest of four children. He attended private Catholic schools and graduated from Sydney University with degrees in law and economics before going to Oxford University in the U.K. as a Rhodes Scholar, where he boxed in varsity matches against rival Cambridge University.
“His schoolmates were jealous of him, but he is a loveable rogue,” said Father Emmet Costello, Abbott’s chaplain at St. Ignatius College, Riverview, a secondary school in Sydney. For example, he was intelligent and a great sportsman, and that made him seem arrogant, Costello said.
Abbott ran his first Iron Man triathlon in March and the next week cycled 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) for charity; he volunteers as a lifeguard in his spare time.
In 1984 Abbott entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Sydney, leaving after three years. After a three-year career in journalism, Abbott in 1990 became press secretary for John Hewson, then head of the opposition Liberal party. He won a seat in parliament in 1994 representing Warringah, a constituency that hugs Sydney’s northern beaches.
Within two years he became a parliamentary secretary, assigned to the minister for employment, before going on to hold three Cabinet positions between 1998 and 2007. As health minister in 2006, he vetoed approval of the abortion drug RU486, prompting parliament to strip health ministers of such authority.
“He has certain moral convictions and there are difficulties there,” said Father Bill Wright, the rector at St. Patrick’s while Abbott was there. “There is the potential for the public to get confused about his private personal convictions and his political ones.”
Abbott’s propensity for gaffes marred the 2007 election campaign. He had to apologize for saying a terminally ill anti-asbestos campaigner wasn’t “pure of heart” just because he was sick. After arriving late for a televised health debate with Labor Party counterpart Nicola Roxon, he was caught on camera saying “That’s bullshit” when she made fun of his time-keeping.
“He’s a fighter and he’s cunning,” said Hewson, the former Liberal leader. “He can be volatile and has a very active mind. The problem is sometimes his mouth runs ahead of his mind.”