CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Tony Abbott, the political pugilist who leads Australia’s opposition, was once dubbed “unelectable” by a former boss, but as elections near he seems certain to become prime minister.
All it took was an unpopular government bloodied by infighting, relentless cheerleading from media mogul Rupert Murdoch and a multibillion-dollar campaign promise aimed at the women he has frequently alienated. And even then, if Australians voted for prime minister rather than members of Parliament, Saturday’s election probably would be a close race.
The 55-year-old conservative has never been very popular nationally. His Liberal Party colleagues elected him their leader by just a single vote in 2009. “Polarizing” is an adjective often used to describe him.
He was notoriously branded “a misogynist” and “sexist” by Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, in a speech to Parliament in 2012 that was lauded by feminists around the world. She led her center-left Labor Party to a narrow victory against Abbott at the last election in 2010.
Gillard’s own party ousted her in June and replaced her with Kevin Rudd, once the most popular Australian prime minister of the past three decades. It appears to have been a vain attempt to boost Labor enough to produce a surprise election victory.
Abbott’s conservative coalition now holds a commanding lead in opinion polls, though the man himself surpassed Rudd in popularity only this week in a poll by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll. In July, Rudd had been the clear favorite, 50 percent to 34 percent.
The 1,116 voters surveyed last weekend favored Abbott over Rudd by 2 percentage points, but since the poll has a 3-percentage-point margin of error, the question was really too close to call. And only 41 percent said they were satisfied with Abbott’s performance, while 51 percent said they were dissatisfied.
Labor argues that their opponents’ success is due in part to uncritical coverage provided through the five-week election campaign by News Corp., which controls 70 percent of Australia’s newspapers. On its front pages, Abbott has been glorified with headlines such as “Australia Needs Tony,” while Rudd has been condemned with a photo illustration depicting him as Colonel Klink, the bumbling Nazi from the old American sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp., has made it clear he’s a fan of Abbott.
“Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott rare exception,” Murdoch tweeted last month. “Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.”
News Corp.’s nearest rival in Australian newspapers, Fairfax Media, editorialized in more subdued tones that Abbott’s time has come.
“Australia is getting used to the idea of Tony Abbott, prime minister. He’s not a leader the country has ever embraced. He’s never been liked by the majority,” The Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher wrote last month. “But gradually, almost grudgingly, Australia is coming to think that he may not be desirable, but he is probably acceptable.”
Several recent gaffes do not appear to have harmed Abbott’s prospects. He was criticized for listing a female candidate’s “sex appeal” as a political asset, then defending himself by calling it a “charming compliment.” He accidentally drew laughter by saying that no one is “the suppository of all wisdom.”
Married with three grown daughters, Abbott is a supremely fit volunteer surf lifesaver and firefighter whom cartoonists often depict in nothing but Speedos and the iconic red-and-yellow cap of the Australian lifeguard.
Ever the action man, he was an amateur boxer at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also known for using his fists at Sydney University: In a fight over rugby, He knocked out Joe Hockey — now a lawmaker poised to take over the treasury portfolio in an Abbott government — in a fight over rugby.
A student newspaper editor took a 20-year-old Abbott to court, accusing him of groping her during a student debate in 1977. A magistrate dismissed the indecent assault charge. Last year, an old political rival from his university days alleged that he punched a wall next to her head in an attempt to intimidate her, which Abbott denied.
Abbott spent three years in a Sydney seminary training to become a Roman Catholic priest. That experience, his family name and his conservative views inspired a nickname: “The Mad Monk.”
Former Liberal leader John Hewson, who employed Abbott as a press secretary until he lost the 1993 election, described Abbott as “unelectable” a few years ago.
According to leaked diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2009, Robert McCallum, U.S. ambassador to Australia under President George W. Bush, reported to Washington that Abbott was a “polarizing right-winger” with a “propensity for insensitivity and controversy.”
The observations were made after Abbott’s stumbling performance as health minister during the 2007 election campaign, which ended with the ouster of Prime Minister John Howard’s government after 11 years in office.
Critics blame Abbott’s religious views for a decision he made as health minister in 2006 not to allow the abortion pill mifepristone in Australia. That decision prompted Parliament to pass legislation removing the health minister’s veto power over new drugs.
Abbott has said his religion does not dictate his decisions. He has said a government led by him would not change a decision made by the Labor government in June to provide taxpayer subsidies for mifepristone.
In this election, Abbott has attempted to reinvent himself as a champion of women who is not beholden to Catholic doctrine.
His chief of staff, Peta Credlin, said in an interview with the women’s magazine Marie Claire that Abbott supported her efforts to have a child through in vitro fertilization — which is opposed by the church — and even allowed her to keep her fertility drugs in his office refrigerator.
What Abbott refers to as his signature policy of the campaign is a paid maternity leave plan that would cost 5.5 billion Australian dollars ($5 billion) a year. It has proved to be one of the campaign’s most divisive policies. Even Abbott’s allies complain that it is unaffordable and too generous toward the wealthy.
Mothers would get the taxpayer-funded equivalent of their salaries for six months to stay home with newborns. Currently, the government gives new mothers 18 weeks of minimum-wage pay: AU$622.10 a week.
The proposed benefit would be capped at AU$75,000, regardless of how wealthy mothers are. Labor dismisses it as “AU$75,000 for millionaires.”
Australian feminist Eva Cox said she sees merit in the proposal, but still sums up Abbott the politician in a single word: “appalling.”
“He’s pushed out one particular policy to appeal to women … but it’s not what you’d call a fully rounded social agenda with a sense of what’s fair and what’s good,” Cox said.
She hasn’t forgotten what Abbott had said as Australian employment minister to the prospect of compulsory paid maternity leave in 2002: “Over this government’s dead body, frankly.”
“He’s basically an old-fashioned bloke,” Cox said. “He doesn’t really recognize that social change is a really important part of what’s happened over the last 30 to 40 years.”