The collective opinion-poll wisdom is that Tony Abbott will win a handsome election victory tomorrow. Yet almost four years after he became Opposition Leader, and stands on the verge of becoming prime minister, many people either still know very little about Abbott, or accept his opponents’ negative definition.
Liberal focus groups must have confirmed this, as his campaign HQ released an advertisement featuring people whom Abbott has helped or worked with, including a Bali bombing victim he personally comforted, firefighting mates, and even his local coffee shop owner. It stresses Abbott’s inherent generosity and decency, but in doing so the party machine overrode Abbott’s admirable personal preference to keep such matters private.
The truth is that, excepting his annual Pollie Pedal charity bike ride, Abbott mostly does his good works away from public gaze. Outside his family, he’s happiest getting dirty fighting bushfires, surf lifesaving, or volunteering in Indigenous communities, but as PM this will become almost impossible for him. His official duties, round-the-clock protection, and the reality that his prime ministerial presence would be disruptive to others will impede, if not prevent, the volunteer life he so enjoys. Even Abbott’s essential morning and post-Question Time run or bike ride will be flanked by protection officers. Confinement in the goldfish bowl is a price he is paying to become prime minister.
PM Abbott also will have intense personal discipline, intellect and conviction. Over four years of relentless campaigning, even parliamentary colleagues and staffers who’ve known him for a long time marvel at how almost robotically disciplined Abbott mostly suppressed the headstrong strand of his political character to secure the ultimate political prize. Labor banked on Abbott imploding, but underestimating his determination and discipline is about to cost them office.
Intellectually, his athletic prowess and knockabout persona obscure that Abbott has more degrees than a thermometer, including from his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Drawing on his wide reading of history and ideas, even now Abbott writes most of his own speeches in the rich nineteenth-century English of Lincoln and Disraeli that he unconsciously favours. He’s written books as well as hundreds of newspaper and journal articles. Articles under a politician’s by-line are usually ghosted, but never in former journalist Abbott’s case.
Abbott is a man of strong convictions, as demonstrated by his full-scale conversion to paid parental leave in the face of widespread resistance. Yet contrary to his negative image as doctrinaire Captain Catholic, Abbott respects other people’s opinions and their right to hold them. He loves to win debates on ideas and policy, yet never assumes that he is the “suppository” of all knowledge. Above all, he accepts people for who they are, and is far less sensitive to dissenting views than many around him.
As PM, Abbott will be as methodical and decisive as when he was a minister – assimilating information, taking and testing advice and consulting widely with colleagues and others. For every briefing sent to him there will be detailed comments and questions, usually annotated in his almost illegible scrawl. But once he’s decided, that’s it: he tends to doggedly defend his decisions against all comers. Pressuring Abbott to change his mind on something that really matters only makes him dig in further: something that his colleagues, think tankers and business advocates opposing his paid parental leave plan would do well to remember.
Abbott’s leadership skills will be tested immediately. He is already being thrown into international affairs via the Syrian crisis and engaging regional governments on his plan to stop the boats. In his first months he will need to promote and demote to shape his ministry; most likely prepare and sell a tough mini-budget; stare down internal and external dissent on paid parental leave; and negotiate his key carbon tax repeal legislation through a Senate hostile at least until next June. He will have to steel himself to suppress his big government tendencies, because as PM no-one else will hold these in check. Additionally, after almost four years of continuous campaigning Abbott also has to reshape his staff team for government, which means making some tough calls affecting loyal supporters.
None of this will be easy but, to his advantage, Abbott believes in Cabinet government, treats monarchs to make-up artists with respect and courtesy, and is collegiate and consultative. Leading the “No” case in the 1999 republic referendum, Abbott showed he can more than ably negotiate with determined opponents, build personal relationships and weld formidable coalitions of disparate interests and huge egos in a common purpose. Despite the claims of his critics, Abbott has shown these skills again and again through his political career, and will need them more than ever as prime minister.
Tony Abbott is an extraordinary ordinary bloke. He lives life to the full and is extremely self-assured, yet is no stranger to self-doubt. He’s human and inevitably will make mistakes as PM, but will learn from them. Even so, Abbott has the maturity, experience and humanity to be a prime minister who wins respect and even affection. Australians will get to know him well, and like what they see.
Terry Barnes is principal of Cormorant Policy Advice. He advised Tony Abbott from 2003 to 2007, when he was health minister