Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have. When pollsters rang to ask who we wanted to take over from John Howard or Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull we put Abbott way down the list, usually at the bottom. As the years went by and the number of Liberal contenders dwindled, we always wanted someone else: Peter Costello even after he gave up the leadership without a fight; Malcolm Turnbull even after the climate sceptics brought him undone; or Joe Hockey the untried hulk from morning television. We never wanted the man the Liberals gave us in December 2009. Abbott was their pick, not ours. And the party was almost as stunned as the nation. “God almighty,” one of the Liberals cried in the party room that day. “What have we done?”
The press pack was held behind ropes waiting for the result. Bob Ellis was treated as comic relief as he buttonholed us with predictions of an Abbott victory. All alone in a nearby anteroom the Reverend Peter Rose sat reading the Bible in front of a blank television screen. “There was no rancour in there,” the priest told me. “That’s what I was praying for.” Hadn’t the poor man noticed that parliament was a palace of rancour? It had been for weeks as Turnbull was torn to pieces by his party. Labor was gloating. Kevin Rudd was once more sailing along at the top of the polls. And the press had it wrong. The Liberal whip walked down the corridor, stood at the precise spot indicated on the carpet and announced Abbott’s victory without a trace of pleasure.
Journalists swore, hit the phones and scattered. Out in the parliament gardens, pundits began talking to cameras. There was little evidence of jubilation in the corridors. Doors were closed. Abbott and the press faced each other in the party room about forty minutes later. It wasn’t crowded. A little pack of supporters had come along to watch and cry “hear, hear” from time to time. They had the shattered look of people given what they’d wished for. By her new leader’s side stood the deputy perpetual, Julie Bishop, smiling and smiling. As the voltage of her smile dimmed, you could see her will it back to life. Once or twice she turned on Abbott a look of coquettish amusement but her eyes were dazed.
“I accept at times I have stuffed up,” he said. “I suppose I should apologise now for all my errors of the past and make a clean breast of them.” But he didn’t go into detail. Long practice makes him good at confession. It’s in his blood. The most Catholic thing about this profoundly Catholic man is his faith in absolution. The slate can always be wiped clean. Over the years he has said and done appalling things that might have sunk another politician. But charm and candour and promises to do better have seen him forgiven so much. The loudmouth bigot of his university days, the homophobe, the blinkered Vatican warrior, the rugger-bugger, the white Australian and the junkyard dog of parliament are all, he would have us believe, consigned to the past. Another self has walked out of the wings. “The Australian public are very fair and are always prepared to give a leader of a major political party a fair go,” he told his little audience. “I believe that when you become leader, you make a fresh start.”
We have not seen a contender like this before. Though he admires them and studies what they teach, Tony Abbott is not another Bob Menzies or John Howard. He is more conservative than both, more quixotic and far less content with the state of the world. Heroes play a large part in his imagination. He dates the first stirrings of his interest in public life to the Ladybird books his mother read him as a child. “These usually turned out to be about great figures in history: Julius Caesar, Francis Drake and Henry V,” he wrote in his book Battlelines. Ladybird books had been spoon-feeding heroism to children of the Empire since World War I and were still going strong in Sydney in the 1960s. “The lesson, invariably, was that duty and honour carried the day.” Those ideas still excite Abbott. A few days after becoming leader of the Opposition, he was given a quick quiz by Josh Gordon of the Sunday Age. Favourite film? “Gallipoli. Seen it many times.” Film star? “John Wayne.” Book? “I’d have to say it’s probably Lord of the Rings. It’s the book I’ve read most.” The best personal advice? “Avoid the occasion of sin.”
Many who have loved this man for years talk of him as a romantic, a figure on a quest. Peter Costello, perhaps not so affectionately, called him “a Don Quixote ready to take on lost causes and fight for great principles.” Knights on horseback make odd figures in politics. They can be comic. They can be malevolent. They can be inspiring. They tend to be lonely and see their loneliness as a mark of courage. What drives them is always a little opaque: is it really much more than proving themselves to themselves? They have a way of seeing the everyday world not quite as the rest of us do. It’s unsettling. Sometimes they are right and we are in their debt. Often they find themselves, lance in hand, searching for windmills. A few of these types are always about in politics, attractive bit players on the left and right. What’s peculiar now is that one of them is leading the Opposition.
We didn’t warm to him. Meagre satisfaction with his leadership lasted only three months as he set about his job: wrecking Labor. He saw off one of the most popular prime ministers in the history of the federation and weeks later nearly beat the man’s successor at the ballot box. That 2010 campaign dashed his opponents’ hopes. He didn’t stuff up. He held his nerve. And he very nearly got there. In those weeks, Australians extended a measure of respect, even admiration, to him. But once that near-miss was past, the polls have been tracking our deepening dissatisfaction with the man and the job he is doing. We thought him narrow-minded and arrogant to begin with. We still do. We didn’t trust him much back then and we trust him less now. Our confidence in his intelligence has sagged. All we really admire about the man is his capacity for hard work. The second week of August saw Newspoll award him a satisfaction rating of minus 24 per cent. By huge margins the people of Australia still want Turnbull and Rudd leading their parties. To be so disliked should, by all the old rules, make Abbott roadkill. He is not. Between him and the election of 2013 lies a political eternity, but as things stand now this unlikely man is heading for a magnificent victory.
What he’s about is destroying a government. Looking like a prime minister in waiting is a second-order consideration. The work isn’t pretty but, with a helping hand from his opponents, he has brought a million or so Australians over to his side of politics. They don’t much like him but they like the Labor government even less. If Abbott can hold on all the way to the ballot box, he will be remembered as the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years, turning a rabble into a government in four years. Tricky to read at the best of times, he’s becoming more opaque as he approaches office. The big question of Australian politics now is not the fate of the mining boom or the impact of the carbon tax, but how Tony Abbott might perform as prime minister. He is campaigning hard and giving little away. Look to my record, he says, as he slogs on with a ferocity that alarms the public almost as much as it rattles the government. That’s how he’s chosen to play the game. Love and respect can wait.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY