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Abbott as PM may surprise everyone

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 10 September 2013


Australia has just gone through a lacklustre election, where a change of government took place. Tony Abbott will be Australia's next prime minister. However this change in government appeared to lack the euphoria of past elections that delivered new governments like '72, '75, '83, '96, and '07. Many fear that an Abbott government will bring Australian public policy back to the Howard era.

The Rudd campaign failed dismally. By the Tuesday before the election Rudd appeared to have given up, while his deputy Anthony Albanese even admitted on radio that Labor was heading towards defeat. Labor's private polling showed a 4-5% swing against it, however most of it went towards the minor parties minimizing electoral losses, with only around 1.5% flowing through to the coalition.

By 6.30pm on election night the fate of Labor was clearly seen, receiving the lowest primary vote in over one hundred years.

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Australia woke up on Sunday morning to a new prime minister designate Tony Abbott. Until now he has avoided close scrutiny and was a most unlikely Liberal leader only just scraping in to the party leadership back in 2010 by one vote. Although he has been in public life for almost 20 years, he is still a paradoxical mystery.

Many have labeled Tony Abbott a masochistic fitness fanatic with conservative Christian values, and policy inclinations going back to the Howard era where he served as a minister for nine years. Some believe that Abbott will ruthlessly cut government spending in education and health to the point where people will suffer just to balance the budget, will do little, if anything about climate change due to his skepticism, and bring up debate about carbon and mining taxes all over again. Many believe Abbott will take Australia back to the conservative abyss.

Tony Abbott as prime minister will find the transition from opposition leader to prime minister challenging, especially in facing the fiscal realities of government, finding a balance between ex-Howard ministers and the large number of new parliamentary members, and dealing with a potentially hostile senate. However a look at his past career and personal history hints that Tony Abbott may not be the type of prime minister that many fear. Much of Abbott's public persona is a media creation, his life gives another story.

Tony Abbott is a Rhodes scholar who graduated with a Master of Arts in politics and philosophy at the prestigious Queens College at Oxford University. He was one of the architects of former opposition leader John Hewson's 'fightback' package during the 1990s.

Tony Abbott was a journalist at the influential magazine The Bulletin and newspaper The Australian, a plant manager at Pioneer Concrete, and even studied three years theology at St. Patrick's Seminary in Sydney. This has given him a wide exposure to influential people within Australian society on all sides of politics. He was first courted by senior members of the New South Wales labor movement including former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr to join the Labor party and run for parliament. By Abbott's own admission, he even voted Labor in the 1988 state election.

Abbott also served as the national convener for Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), when the then prime minister Keating brought up the idea of an Australian republic into the national debate. This is the time where Abbott met and worked with John Howard, who in 1994 encouraged him to seek Liberal pre-selection for the Federal seat of Warringah.

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When Tony Abbott was parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Employment and Education, he set up the Green Corps program which engaged young people in environmental reconstruction work. He instigated the work for the dole program as Employment Services Minister and commissioned the Cole Royal Commission into gangsterism and corruption in the construction industry, establishing the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner with the objective of lifting industry productivity. As the Health Minister Abbott managed to stop doctors abandoning the Medicare system. While on holiday in Bali with his family in 2005 when the Bali Bombings occurred, Abbott visited the victims in hospital and arranged their evacuation to Singapore.

Tony Abbott also performed a number of heroic acts. During his student days, he saved a drowning child from being swept out to sea and later in his university days he helped to rescue children from a burning building next to a hotel he was drinking in. According to newspaper reports, on both occasions he never stayed around to be properly thanked.

From Abbott's student politics days until now, his views on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and gay and lesbian marriage seem to be more influenced by his personal experiences that his theological background. He believed that he fathered a child out of wedlock and put that child up for adoption, he has been very supported of his lesbian sister. From this perspective Tony Abbott is displays humanistic considerations and has given deep thought to the logic and rationale behind what he believes in. For example he believes that legalized euthanasia would open the way for unscrupulous children to terminate the lives of their relatives for reasons other than health and comfort.

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Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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