Shirley Barrie says she’s not a fan of Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott. She’ll vote for him anyway.
“He polarizes people,” said the 50-year-old business administrator, who in past elections has voted for both the country’s major parties, as she ate lunch in a park in Sydney’s financial district. “I do not vote for the person, but I vote for the party.”
Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition has led in almost every opinion poll for more than 18 months even though his personal popularity trails that of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. While the governing Labor party closed the gap after Australia’s first female prime minister labeled Abbott a sexist and misogynist in parliament this month, he’s unlikely to suffer long-term damage from the broadside, said political analyst Zareh Ghazarian.
“Labor has been painting him as a social conservative with sexist undertones and ramping up a discussion on gender issues because voters are refusing to listen to it about anything else,” said Ghazarian, a lecturer at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Melbourne’s Monash University. “The opposition leader’s job isn’t to win a popularity contest, it’s to lead his party into government, and the long-term trend suggests Abbott is on his way to doing that.”
Abbott, a 54-year-old Rhodes Scholar and former amateur boxer who studied for the priesthood, has led the attack on Labor since becoming Liberal Party leader in December 2009, with claims the minority government is willing to compromise its integrity to cling to power. His coalition is pledging to overturn Gillard’s taxes on carbon emissions and mining profits if it wins elections due by November 2013.
The opposition leader says the taxes have contributed to a slowdown in the economy, which has been expanding for 21 years, and that the government’s immigration policy has contributed to a surge in asylum seekers. More than 600 refugees have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia in the past three years, according to a government-commissioned report.
Labor hasn’t led the coalition in the so-called two-party preferred vote since a survey conducted March 18-20, 2011. Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition was even with Labor at 50 percent in a Newspoll survey published Oct. 29 in the Australian newspaper.
That result is based on the two-party preferred system, which political analyst Andrew Hughes at the Australian National University in Canberra says is the best gauge of potential election results. Under the system, the major parties receive a primary vote and may also receive preference votes once minor parties or independents are eliminated.
Support for Labor rose 4 points from the previous poll, while the coalition dropped 4 points. The telephone survey of 1,176 people, conducted Oct. 26-28, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The coalition has led by an average of 8.7 percentage points in Newspoll surveys this year.
Newspoll Chief Executive Officer Martin O’Shannessy said that in the company’s surveys dating back to 1985, there has never been a comeback on the scale Labor would need to govern in its own right.
“The challenge is great, not impossible, but very great,” he said in a telephone interview. “Labor has had resurgence since July and is now looking like it’s in a contest,” although the coalition is still on track to win the next election, O’Shannessy said.
Personally, it’s another story. This week’s Newspoll survey found that former union lawyer Gillard, 51, was the preferred prime minister. She registered 45 percent support, against 34 percent for Abbott.
In the 2010 national ballot, after which Gillard had to cobble together a minority government with support from Greens and independents, Labor won 50.12 percent of the two-party preferred vote, compared with the coalition on 49.88 percent.
“He’s unpopular because he’s very blunt on some topics where Australians like to think of themselves as politically correct,” said Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research. “It’s Abbott’s way or the highway. The Liberals’ brand is conservative, so he’s always going to appeal to the party’s base.”
It was Gillard who was blunt on Oct. 9 as she defended her government’s support of parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper, who sent text messages containing crude references to women. He later resigned the speakership. The prime minister wanted to keep Slipper in the position to help her minority government pass legislation.
Gillard accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism,” and said he had been “catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as prime minister.” She produced quotes she attributed to Abbott that she said offended her “on behalf of the women of Australia.”
“The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” she said in her speech, which has received more than 2 million views on YouTube. “I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.”
Abbott, who is married with three daughters, told reporters in Sydney on Oct. 17 that the charges of sexism were “cheap, grubby smears” from Gillard and her senior ministers.
“The coalition is not interested in the politics of personal attacks,” Abbott’s office said in an e-mailed statement on Oct. 27. “We are focused on holding a bad government to account for its failed policies and poor economic management and explaining our plans to build a better Australia through lower taxes, lower spending, higher productivity and closer engagement with Asia.”
Australians have voted unpopular leaders into power before. Paul Keating won the March 1993 election for Labor, in what he described in his acceptance speech as “the sweetest victory of all,” after trailing opposition leader John Hewson by 15 percentage points just 14 months earlier, according to Newspoll. Keating himself was the preferred prime minister by 5 percentage points three years later during the next election, comfortably won by John Howard.
“I am going to vote against Gillard because she has put power above integrity, power above honesty,” said Tim Monckton, 57, a self-described “floating voter” who works in financial services in Sydney. Instead he’ll vote for Abbott, despite what he calls the opposition leader’s lack of statesmanship and tendency toward populist attacks on the government.
“No one wants to vote for Labor but everyone has the same concerns as I do about Abbott,” Monckton said. “He is playing to the masses. He has got to offer more than that.”
Abbott won the party leadership on opposing a carbon emissions trading system, which his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull had supported for Australia, the developed world’s biggest polluter of greenhouse gases per capita.
He is the “standard bearer for a particular form of Australian conservatism,” according to Tim Soutphommasane, a lecturer at Monash University ’s National Centre for Australian Studies and at the Graduate School of Government in the University of Sydney.
Abortion has been “reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience” and is “a national tragedy,” Abbott said in a speech in March 2004, when he was Australia’s health minister. Abortion is legal in the nation, though guidelines for when termination may take place vary between states.
As opposition leader, Abbott has proposed tougher guidelines on foreign ownership of farmland and said in July that investment by China, the nation’s biggest trading partner, “is complicated” by the prevalence of state-owned enterprises.
“He has been highly adversarial and aggressive as opposition leader,” Soutphommasane said in a telephone interview. “The question is whether he can make the transition to being a more unifying figure as prime minister.”
Heading into next year’s election “Labor will be telling voters that Abbott is a divisive and ugly person who’s not fit to lead the country,” said Haydon Manning, an associate professor who heads the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University in Adelaide. “Countering that, the coalition has the capacity to deliver photo opportunities of him with his family, telling a very mainstream, reassuring story.”
Australian men are more likely to support Abbott than women are. An analysis of Newspoll surveys, published in the Australian on Oct. 5, showed 29 percent of female voters are satisfied with Abbott, compared with 34 percent of men.
Gillard, who has been portrayed as lying nude under the Australian flag and having sex in her office in a television comedy, said in a September 2011 interview that Australia has a “blokey” culture. Only 27 percent of men are satisfied with her performance as prime minister, compared with 32 percent of women, according to the Australian.
“Gillard’s speech opened up a conversation about sexism and misogyny, which is important because powerful women have emerged in recent years and that’s caused anxiety,” said Catharine Lumby, a feminist author and director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at Sydney’s University of New South Wales.
In a Newspoll survey published today in the Australian, 39 percent of those questioned said Abbott had behaved in a sexist way toward Gillard recently, while 45 percent said he hadn’t. The telephone survey of 1,218 people, conducted Oct. 26-28, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Born in London to expatriate Australian parents, Abbott was raised in Sydney, the nation’s biggest city, attending Catholic-funded schools before studying economics and law at the University of Sydney and becoming involved in student politics.
Abbott’s shadow treasurer and fellow University of Sydney alumnus, Joe Hockey, said in an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television interview broadcast this month that his leader had given him a black eye during a disagreement over selection of the university’s rugby team.
At Oxford, Abbott graduated with a Master of Arts in Politics and Philosophy and represented the university in boxing. A fitness enthusiast and member of his local surf club, he is often shown in Australian papers wearing swimming briefs on the beach, or on early-morning bicycle rides.
“The classic caricature of an Australian is sort of a bigger than life friendliness, and Tony had that, but what I think he also had was this genuineness,” said Roger Mastalir, an American who was in Abbott’s class at Oxford and now is a law clerk for a federal judge in Sioux City, Iowa.
“He would go straight to the issue, he would take you on on an issue, but it was never with a sense of ill will or belittlement. Aggressive, sure. But it’s the aggressiveness of an active intellect, not the aggressiveness of trying to squash people,” Mastalir said.
Abbott joined a seminary in 1984, then ended his bid to become a priest three years later. It was partly because, he told Channel 9’s Sunday program in 2001, “I just couldn’t see myself being celibate for the rest of my life and a non-celibate priest is a very serious betrayal of the greatest cause on earth.”
After a stint as a journalist, writing for national publications including the Australian and the Bulletin, along with the Catholic Weekly, Abbott in 1994 was elected as the member for Warringah, a safe Liberal Party seat representing the affluent northern Sydney suburbs where he grew up and resides.
In May 2011, Abbott told parliament that as a husband and father he understood “the financial pressures on nearly every Australian household.” Of Gillard, an unwed self-declared atheist with no children who lives with her hairdresser partner Tim Mathieson, he said: “Only an election could make an honest politician of this prime minister.”
A former British Empire prison colony that allowed its first female political candidate in 1897, Australia this year ranked 25th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. It measures economic participation, education, health and political empowerment in 135 countries.
Australia has a female head of state in Governor General Quentin Bryce; Ged Kearney leads the Australian Council of Trade Unions; Gail Kelly is chief executive of Westpac Banking Corp., the nation’s second-biggest bank; Christine Milne leads the Greens, the third-biggest party; and iron ore magnate Gina Rinehart is Australia’s richest person.
While Labor’s Anna Burke, who replaced Slipper as House Speaker this month, said in an ABC interview that Abbott wasn’t a misogynist, she found Gillard’s speech “pretty spot on.”
“It’s not capable women Tony Abbott has a problem with, it’s incapable politicians,” Shadow Cabinet Minister Sophie Mirabella, who has known him for more than 20 years, said in an interview from Melbourne. “Putting aside his deep intellect and ability to communicate clearly, the most important attributes are his extraordinary senses of responsibility and humility.”
The coalition is united behind Abbott, who has proved to be a successful opposition leader, Mirabella said, adding she’s unconcerned about Abbott’s personal polling levels because it’s the party’s overall popularity that counts.
Shirley Barrie, who said she’ll vote for Abbott’s coalition next year, agrees.
“The leadership is only one facet of why you would vote for the coalition,” she said. “I try to look past the hysteria that has been created in parliament.”