Tony Abbott had learned to box only a few months before that night in 1982 when he climbed into the ring for the deciding bout in the Oxford-versus-Cambridge annual collegiate boxing contest. And he faced a taller opponent with a longer reach.
There are different accounts as to whether the match lasted 30 or 45 seconds. There was no disputing the winner.
“Tony came out like a thrashing machine, hit the guy and it was all over,” said Phil Crowe, Abbott’s rugby captain from his days at the University of Sydney and the University of Oxford, who was in the crowd that night. “He just charged and the other guy had no chance.”
The grit Abbott, 55, showed is about to propel him to the top job in a $1.5 trillion Australian economy, where growth slowed to 2.5 percent in the year through March 31. Those who know him and have chronicled his career say he’s become more polished and pragmatic even as a combative streak in sports and politics has helped him weather attacks on his intellectual heft and faith-driven views. His durability has earned him the opportunity to lead the opposition for two polls in a row.
“When he became opposition leader the conventional wisdom was that he didn’t have the right temperament to last, but his self-restraint and control enabled him to be very effective,” said Wayne Errington, a political analyst at the University of Adelaide and co-author of a biography of former coalition Prime Minister John Howard. “While that doesn’t mean he will be a great prime minister, he’s at least proven to be a pragmatist.”
Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition has an eight-point lead in the polls over Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor party ahead of the Sept. 7 vote. The coalition needs to add only four lower house seats to end six years in opposition. As prime minister, Abbott would have to shift from being a critic to laying out a platform for Australia, and negotiating with a potentially hostile parliament on his pledges to cut spending and taxes.
In recent years Abbott, a practicing Catholic, has also been the target of criticism for his comments about women, which saw him accused in 2012 of misogyny by Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. Abbott in an interview on Aug. 29 likened that claim to “mud” being thrown at him.
Born in 1957 in London to an English father and Australian mother, Abbott and his family sailed for Sydney in 1960. His father, Dick, a dentist, later told The Australian newspaper that when his wife, Fay, was asked about young Tony’s future, she replied: “He’ll either be the pope or prime minister.”
Abbott attended Catholic schools in Sydney’s affluent northern suburbs and was elected president of the University of Sydney’s Students’ Representative Council, graduating with a degree in law and economics.
“He was a good student all round, certainly in the top bracket,” said John McGee, a Sydney-based businessman who met Abbott at university and remains a close friend. “I saw a leader of people and a uniter of people.”
Should he win, Abbott will need those skills to navigate the economy through a slowing in mining investment that has seen weaker-than-forecast tax revenues and the Labor government’s budget deficit for this fiscal year blow out from A$18 billion ($16.1 billion) forecast in May to A$30.1 billion in August. While Abbott has outlined policies he says will save A$17 billion, his task will be complicated by a vow to scrap some taxes as well as Labor’s carbon pricing mechanism.
Australia’s central bank today left its key interest rate unchanged at a record-low 2.5 percent. Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb said in an interview with Bloomberg Television that the central bank was running out of room to enact emergency stimulus measures if needed. “The Reserve Bank has been relied upon, or pressured, to do the heavy lifting in the economy for the last few years,” he said.
To follow through on his promises, Abbott may have to deal with smaller parties such as the Greens -- strong advocates of the carbon mechanism -- in the upper house. He reportedly called climate change “absolute crap” in October 2009, and has antagonized the Greens with his tough policy on asylum seekers. Greens leader Christine Milne has portrayed Abbott as out of touch, calling him a “hyper-masculine style of male politician.”
Abbott has spoken of his conservative views that reflect his family background and lean on the Liberal tenets of supporting business and deregulation. He’s cited his early admiration of B.A. Santamaria, a Catholic-Australian anti-communist who held traditional views on the role of women in family life, while opposing unrestrained capitalism.
In the 1970s Abbott vowed to replace the Sydney University students’ representative council’s posters of Che Guevara with portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II.
Abbott has always seen himself as a more traditional man who is Australian, or “dinky-di”, to his core, according to Norman O’Bryan, a corporate lawyer in Melbourne who was a fellow Rhodes scholar with Abbott at Oxford. In the summer, Abbott would walk around Oxford in the “Aussie uniform” of shorts and a tank top, O’Bryan said.
Abbott’s views have led him to make comments about women that political critics say reflects a deeper misogyny.
According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., he wrote in the Sydney University student council’s newspaper that “it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”
In February 2010, talking about the effects of Labor’s carbon pricing system, he said: “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price.”
Gillard accused Abbott of making sexist comments. “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,” Abbott “needs a mirror,” she said in a fiery October 2012 speech in parliament.
“Throw enough mud and some of it sticks, the saying goes, but the person who throws mud usually gets dirty himself or herself,” Abbott said in the Aug. 29 interview. He said he wouldn’t comment on whether Gillard’s attack damaged his popularity. “The only point I’d make is I’m here and she’s not.” Gillard was forced out by Rudd in June in a vote by Labor lawmakers, three years after she had pushed him aside.
Asked by reporters last month to identify the attributes of Liberal candidate Fiona Scott, high on Abbott’s list was “sex appeal.” At the same time he’s promised a paid parental leave system under which a new parent would receive as much as A$75,000 over six months.
“He’s probably unchanged at heart,” said Eva Cox, founder of the Women’s Economic Think Tank and author of “Leading Women.” “He’s betrayed some old-fashioned, conventional attitudes toward the roles of women but he’s worked out that they do play a large role in the workplace and as voters.”
Abbott is married to Margie Abbott, a child-care worker who grew up in New Zealand, and has three adult daughters, two of whom have featured heavily in his campaign. “For us, he’s not just the guy on TV,” Frances Abbott, 22, said at the Liberal Party’s campaign launch in Brisbane on Aug. 26. “He’s the man, along with our mum, who’s helped us become the women we are today.”
“He’s more conservative than me, but so what?,” said Amanda Vanstone, who was a minister alongside Abbott in Howard’s government. “The notion of needing to vote for someone in your likeness is narcissistic.” What’s needed, she said, is someone who “is committed enough to see their beliefs through.”
While achieving two boxing Blues at Oxford -- sporting awards granted for achieving at the highest level -- Abbott was known for being deeply religious. “He loved to be in the pub with the boys, but he had another side,” said Crowe. “He was very much involved with the Jesuits.”
On returning to Australia, Abbott joined a seminary in Sydney in 1984. His bid to become a priest ended three years later because, as he told Channel 9 in 2001: “I just couldn’t see myself being celibate for the rest of my life.”
He still attends Mass regularly, unusual in a nation where only 13 percent of people who identify themselves as Catholics do and where nearly half of Australians in a 2009 survey said religion was not important in their lives.
At 19 he discovered his girlfriend was pregnant. “An abortion was out of the question,” he said in his 2009 book, “Battlelines.” The child -- which later turned out not to be his -- was put up for adoption. Decades later, as health minister, Abbott said that abortion had been “reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.”
While Abbott maintains marriage should be between a man and a woman, in April he said he might let coalition lawmakers vote on gay marriage according to their personal views. Last year he revealed that one of his three sisters was gay.
In 1987, approaching the age of 30 and with a young family to support, Abbott needed a job. He chose journalism and was hired in 1989 as an editorial writer at The Australian newspaper, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
“He took to journalism quite naturally, quite a good writer,” said David Armstrong, former editor-in-chief at the paper, who hired Abbott. He was “always happiest doing analytical and opinionated stuff.”
Abbott’s writing opened doors to politicians, including to Howard, in 1990 a shadow minister. Abbott’s political career began when Howard told his leader, John Hewson, that he knew of a potential press secretary.
“I wanted a range of opinions on my staff,” said Hewson, who led the Liberal Party from 1990 until 1994. “I had Abbott there as a fairly extreme conservative Catholic.”
After Hewson squandered a strong lead in the opinion polls to lose the 1993 election to Labor’s Paul Keating -- an experience he said “badly wounded” his press secretary -- Abbott joined Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, a group that went on to defeat a 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic.
In a 1994 special election, with support from Howard, Abbott was elected the member for Warringah, a safe Liberal district representing Sydney’s northern beaches. He was promoted to cabinet in 2001 as minister for employment and workplace relations.
Abbott’s rise mirrors the ascension of the New South Wales branch of the Liberal party, which since 1990 has accounted for five of the past six leaders, including Howard and Hewson, and typically produces leaders with more socially conservative leanings. Former coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who served from 1975 to 1983, said in an October 2011 interview with The Conversation that Abbott was dangerous because he’d taken the party to “the extreme right.”
He quickly gained attention: Then-Labor leader Kim Beazley called him a “bomb thrower” in December 2000. Then-shadow employment minister Cheryl Kernot said the way Abbott asked questions in parliament like a “bovver boy,” or skinhead, meant “we’ve reached a new low.”
Abbott had an “intellectual aggressiveness,” said Roger Mastalir, who was in Abbott’s class at Oxford and now works as a law clerk in Sioux City, Iowa. In academic circles that could be “delightful.” “I can see why in other circles it might make others uncomfortable.”
Effective on the parliamentary floor, Abbott also earned a reputation as a workhorse. Mukesh Haikerwal, the former president of the Australian Medical Association, dealt with Abbott during his term as health minister in the mid-2000s.
“He’d always have a little notepad in his shirt pocket with his pen and would take down notes about what you were saying,” Haikerwal said. “He was very intent on getting results.”
Away from politics Abbott kept busy. Photos appeared in newspapers of him wearing only taut briefs as he conducted beach patrols in his role as a volunteer life-saver.
“Tony is a very ordinary member here; he does his patrols, he turns up for ocean swims, and lines up like everybody else,” said Kevin Harris, president of Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club.
Abbott still spends time each year working in remote Outback communities with indigenous people; as a bike rider he takes part in the annual Pollie Pedal, which raises money for charity. During bush fires in January he reported for duty as a member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
“He’s got a social conscience,” said Amanda Lynch, who has worked with Abbott as chairman of the Council of Small Business of Australia. “His volunteer work is not just for show.”
Still, his ascension to opposition leader surprised some pundits who didn’t think he was disciplined enough, said Stephen Stockwell, a professor of journalism and communications at Griffith University in Brisbane. After Howard was defeated by Rudd in 2007, the coalition churned through two leaders before Abbott won an internal ballot on Dec. 1, 2009, by a single vote.
Even Abbott seemed surprised by that victory, telling a reporter it was “the last thing I would have expected a week ago.”
More recently, he said in the interview that his time in opposition would shape his leadership if he won the election.
“I do think that the people who are most likely to be successful in government are those who have been successful in opposition,” he said. “The essential ingredients for success are knowing what you want to do, having clear principles and being able to run a good team.”
Corporate lawyer Byron Koster, who has been riding with Abbott as part of a group of about 10 Sydney cyclists on weekends for 12 years, said Abbott’s self-discipline reflects the more pragmatic man he’s become.
“There are all sorts of views about him being the Mad Monk, crazy on religion, a head-kicker,” Koster said. “Since I’ve known him, he’s gone through an evolution. He’s certainly less conservative and more open-minded. Life’s not simple and amenable to being put into neat categories, and I think that’s certainly been part of the process with Tony.”