TONY ABBOTT LIKES TO TELL THE STORY about his first visit to the United States as a newly elected member of the Australian Parliament. It was 1995, and he was widely seen as a rising star in the center-right Liberal Party, where the word “liberal” still means more or less what it meant in the nineteenth century. He had also distinguished himself as a leading opponent of the Labor government’s ill-fated proposal to replace Australia’s constitutional monarchy with a republic.
But something got lost in translation: Abbott’s Washington-based hosts, the U.S. Information Agency, had been told that he was “very liberal and strongly anti-Republican.” Which meant his itinerary during his two-week study trip consisted of meetings with only commentators and interest groups on the far left of the American ideological spectrum.
Trans-Pacific jokes aside, the conventional wisdom of just a few years ago held that Abbott was too right-wing to become prime minister down under, a throwback to a bygone era. After all, the devout Christian and former Oxford boxing blue is skeptical about abortion, same-sex marriage and alarmist claims of global warming. He is an Anglophile who is a great admirer of the United States and its leadership role in the world. (He once said, “Few Australians would regard America as a foreign country.”) He champions “smaller government, lower taxes, greater freedom, a fair go for families and respect for institutions that have stood the test of time.”
When he is not on message, which is rare for spin-soaked politicians in the relentless 24-7 media and Internet environment, he is gaffe-prone. During the federal election campaign last August, he said that a female parliamentary candidate had “sex appeal” and that his opponent, the then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, was not the “suppository” of all wisdom. He has ticked almost every unfashionable box in modern politics.
Like Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK Conservative Party’s leadership contest in 1975 and Ronald Reagan’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1980, Abbott’s narrow victory in the Liberal Party leadership ballot in 2009 delighted his political opponents, who had dismissed him as easy to beat in a general election. The Canberra press gallery—our equivalent of the Washington press corps—did not take him seriously as prime ministerial material. He’s “too archetypically conservative.” He’s too much of a “King Catholic.” He views the world through a “narrow ideological prism.” He’ll “split the party.” “Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have.” So said seasoned observers of Australian politics.
Nor were they alone. The nation’s intelligentsia was contemptuous of the “Mad Monk.” Under Abbott’s leadership, one distinguished academic warned, the conservative Liberal Party would become “a down-market protest party of angry old men and the outer suburbs.” Even the U.S. ambassador in Canberra, in a cable to Washington that WikiLeaks revealed a few years ago, called him “a polarizing right-winger.”
And yet for all his evident shortcomings, the fifty-six-year-old Abbott reminds one of the adage that low expectations are a priceless political asset. He has seen off three Labor prime ministerships in as many years. And last September, he won one of the nation’s biggest landslide victories since World War II. Simply put, the man who once trained to be a Catholic priest has resurrected the conservative cause, which had languished in the Antipodes following the downfall of John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996 to 2007, whom Abbott served as a confidant and cabinet minister.
SO HOW DID THIS POLITICAL NEANDERTHAL win power in Australia? What defines the Abbott worldview? Is he a role model for American conservatives? And are the early reports of his political demise exaggerated?
From the outset, I should acknowledge that I have known Abbott for fifteen years. I like him enormously and consider him a friend, or—in Australian parlance—a top bloke with a larrikin streak. He’s been so faithful to his mates that he has not lost any. He is a volunteer bushfire fighter and lifeguard in his federal seat on Sydney’s northern beaches. He is deeply committed to the welfare of indigenous Australians, and spends weeks living in remote Aboriginal communities in the outback. There is nothing phony about him.
But although I am not one of his many critics in Australia’s media and intellectual community, neither am I an uncritical admirer. Among other things, his oratory tends to lack range and theatrical effect. At times, he is even rhetorically challenged, more likely to address his fellow citizens in simple sound bites than in an engaging conversational style. He gave unqualified support to the previous government’s commitment of Australian troops in the depressing and endless war in Afghanistan. Never mind that our presence there had not been yielding lasting improvements that were commensurate with the investment of blood and treasure. (Australia lost nearly forty lives in the last four years.)