The conservative politician widely expected to emerge as Australia’s prime minister after Saturday’s parliamentary elections has mused publicly that it may not be “a bad thing” that men have more power than women.
Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott has also scandalized political circles by praising a fellow candidate for her “sex appeal,” denounced abortion as “a question of the mother’s convenience” and dismissed the notion of climate change as “absolute crap.”
Abbott, 55, has been labeled “unelectable” by stalwarts within his own party and was branded by a former U.S. ambassador to Australia -- in a 2010 diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks -- as a “polarizing right-winger” with a “propensity for insensitivity and controversy.”
But under Australia’s parliamentary election system, the party winning a majority of seats chooses the head of government. And Abbott, despite his divisive policies and groan-inducing gaffes, looks to be riding the coattails of his fellow conservatives into the prime minister’s office.
The Liberal-National coalition had a commanding lead as voters began arriving at the polls Saturday morning. A Newspoll published by The Australian newspaper this week showed the conservatives with an 8 percentage-point lead over the rival Labor Party, which has governed the country of 22 million for six years.
Incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd returned to the office in June after a three-year hiatus that followed an inside putsch in 2010, which put Julia Gillard in the leadership of the party and government. Gillard’s similar ouster three months ago was intended to distance Labor from the widely unpopular carbon tax she imposed in 2012 that has boosted Australians’ energy bills by more than 100%, according to some estimates.
Collectively, Gillard and Rudd, a former diplomat and married father of three, managed to steer Australia through the global recession without the economic crises that beset most developed countries. Australia was spared by a resource export boom driven by China. But coal, mineral and agricultural sales have slowed, confronting the country with more dire economic challenges. And the political back-stabbing within the Labor Party leadership has turned off many of its traditional supporters.
The Newspoll suggested the conservative coalition would pick up at least 22 seats in the 150-member lower house, ending the gridlock that developed after the last election gave neither of the two biggest factions an outright majority. Labor, which won 72 seats, partnered with the Greens, who demanded in return that Gillard go back on campaign promises not to seek the carbon tax. The environmentalists consider the tax essential for Australia to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets by 2020.
Abbott’s campaign appearances during the five-week run-up to Saturday’s voting provided an array of comments and missteps that women on both sides of the political aisle complained were a reflection of a “misogynist” and a politician out of step with the times.
Abbott burnished his image as a “larrikin” -- an Aussie epithet for one disposed toward comical behavior -- when he attempted to brush off one unfortunate campaign trail remark with another, excusing the controversy he stirred with the comment about his colleague’s sex appeal by saying that nobody is “the suppository of all wisdom.”
Still, Abbott’s occasional buffoonery belies an indisputable intellect and wealth of experience that supporters argue would serve him well as prime minister. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and holds degrees in law and economics. He spent three years at a Sydney seminary training for the Catholic priesthood, though never joined. A married father of three adult daughters, he spent time in the blue-collar world of concrete production before entering politics in 1994. To this day, he serves as a volunteer lifeguard and firefighter, often lampooned by editorial cartoonists in Speedo swim briefs poised for a rescue.
Although it is the Liberal-National coalition’s success in capturing disenchanted Labor voters more than Abbott’s own campaign performance that is seen as winning him the prime minister’s office, he has his fans, most notably the News Corp. media conglomerate of Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch, which controls 70% of the country’s newspapers.
“While there are gaps in his policy platform and some curious offerings along the way, it is clear that an Abbott government has a clear philosophical framework,” The Australian, a Murdoch paper, observed in endorsing the Liberal.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, another News Corp. publication, launched its campaign against any re-election of Rudd and Labor with an appeal to “Kick this mob out.”
Editorial endorsements for Abbott have also come from the rival Fairfax Media group, though with more capitulation to the inevitable than enthusiasm.
“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,” 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.”