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Tony Abbott: He does not appease the progressive cultural establishment (illustration by Michael Daley)

Australia's Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott, is the very model of a modern, muscular conservative: a younger, more athletic and informal version of his mentor, the equally underrated but highly successful John Howard. In its first nine months, Abbott's coalition government has let the world know that Australia is "open for business". He has restored control of the nation's borders (ending illegal immigration by "boat people"), pledged to end what he calls "the age of entitlement", restored Australia's commitment to fiscal sustainability, increased defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, deregulated the university sector, and concluded major free-trade deals with Japan and Korea while advancing another with China.

He still faces an inherited fiscal challenge and an intense culture war. A formidable alliance of opponents has assembled against him: the Labor party, the leftist Greens, and a populist right-wing breakaway party led by a billionaire, Clive Palmer. 

Not a naturally charismatic politician, Abbott does not appease the progressive cultural establishment. He aims to win on merit of performance rather than political optics. He rose to power through his mastery of climate change politics: he has resolutely opposed policies that were threatening to wreck Australia's economy — which depends on exporting natural resources and has high per capita carbon emissions — in a vain attempt to "lead the world".

Abbott was so underestimated that he was deemed "unelectable" by Australia's commentariat. His political strategy — building a coalition from the Right, including mortgage-belt families, social conservatives and libertarians who place economics ahead of their liberal social views — was deemed impossible. But he has done it.

The radical underestimation of Abbott reveals the disconnect between cultural elites and ordinary Australians. Over two election cycles, the "unelectable" Abbott brought Labor's primary vote to its lowest level in 100 years, 33.4 per cent. Labor's melodrama (including sacking a sitting prime minister) played its part, yet these were forced errors made under pressure from Abbott.

Abbott is an unreconstructed "man's man", standing up for the old values and institutions: religion, the military, the monarchy, physical fitness and public service. He is a long-standing volunteer firefighter, lifeguard and teacher in Aboriginal communities. His traditionalism makes him a hate figure of the Left. He is reviled as a "loudmouth bigot", a "homophobe, a blinkered Vatican warrior, rugger-bugger, the white Australian and the junkyard dog of parliament".

When the former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard charged Abbott with misogyny, it gained traction until Australia met his intelligent wife, three impressive and glamorous daughters, and his highly effective female chief of staff, Peta Credlin. A more legitimate criticism is the dearth of female cabinet ministers, but his deputy Julie Bishop is proving an effective foreign minister.

Abbott's policy approach is to balance symbolism with practical action. In indigenous affairs, this means a referendum to include Aboriginals in the constitution and conditional welfare, based on children attending school and parents working.

Born in Britain, this Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford boxing blue once waxed lyrical about the anglosphere. Now he focuses mainly on Australia's role in Asia — though he reintroduced Australian knights and dames, calling them "a grace note" in Australia's national life. He wants to rebalance war commemoration away from defeat in Gallipoli to victory on the Western Front in 1918.

Increased defence spending underlines Abbott's concerns about deteriorating security in the Indo-Pacific. Australia will remain a strong ally of the United States, but Abbott, a strong friend of Israel, is also strengthening alliances with Japan, Indonesia, Korea and India.

Abbott's most dangerous challenge is the tougher times facing Australia as the resource boom fades. The lucky country has been living beyond its means for decades, but no one thought to tell the Australian people. Fiscal deterioration was masked by the trade boom as China urbanised. With commodity prices now falling, revenues have been caught short, finding Australians unprepared for cuts in entitlements. As protesters take to the streets in their tens of thousands, Abbott's poll ratings are sinking and he faces a hostile Senate.

Abbott has made himself a lightning-rod for progressive hatred. Still, this champion of the common man may grow in the job and prevail. But don't count on it. If the winds change in the culture wars — as they did in 2007, when John Howard lost — there will be battles he cannot win. Or if China's economy lands too hard, Australia will find it impossible to extend its 21-year-streak of economic growth. Abbott has just two years before he faces re-election. That may be a bob and weave beyond even this prizefighter.
August 25th, 2014
1:08 PM
Thank you to Christopher Tipler for a perfect example of pre-emptive left wing nastiness. The rule is, if anybody talks about a culture of entitlement, or dependency, the correct lefty response, documented in the lefty playbook, is to say "this person is blaming the disabled for being disabled. So you are wrong. QED" A straw man, Chris, and a good beating you've given him.

Malcolm McLean
August 17th, 2014
9:08 PM
Good to see an "underrated" for a change. It's not really a kindness to be tolerant of illegal immigrants. It gives the illegal immigrant hope that, if he can just evade detection for long enough, he will be naturalised. But how does he do that? By putting his life at risk to gain covert entry, then tolerating near slavery, or worse, organised criminality like drugs and prostitution, as he seeks to support himself without coming to the attention of the authorities. The only logical alternative of allowing anyone who wants to enter is unthinkable. It is impossible to predict what will happen to natural resource prices. To borrow heavily on the back of a hope that a rise will eat away the debt would be extremely irresponsible. But there's another good reason for reducing welfare, which is that it tends to create a culture of single parenting, with Mum living with a succession of boyfriends. That doesn't do anyone any good, not the men who are made superfluous, not the children, and not even really the single Mums who claim the welfare.

metro 70
July 21st, 2014
5:07 AM
Mr Tipler's comment is typical of the blinkered anti-Australian view of GreenLabor, the two parties that are joined at the hip in spite of Labor's protestations. His characterisation of Tony Abbott as a 'tragic figure on the Australian political scene.' is ludicrous and a lie. Don't let what you wish for blind you to reality , Christopher Tipler. Abbott has been vilified and defamed from the moment he entered parliament---not because he's so bad, but because he's so good---and because the Left know he knows what they're really about---he fought against their Communist [ in various iterations] thugs at University---he knows what they're up to . Labor has feared him for decades, and they thought prior to 2009, that they had , via his Catholicism and casting his effectiveness as bullying tactics, made him unelectable. Australians are not a bit 'aghast' at Tony Abbott's stance on climate---it's what they voted him in for in a landslide in 2013. Julia Gillard herself exhibited more misogyny, not only in her personal life, but in her championing as Speaker[ because it helped with her numbers in the House] of an uber-misogynist who is now before the courts---championed him even after his colorfully-expressed extreme disdain for women was revealed. Mr Tipler would rather the world not know that. There is absolutely zilch in Abbott's history that suggests misogyny---in fact the opposite, since he has always had more loyal and long-term female staffers than Labor---and certainly treats them impeccably well---unlike Labor's well-documented mistreatment of theirs—and some of their female MPs. What Christopher Tipler really has his knickers in a knot about, is Abbott's realism on CAGW , and his refusal to destroy Australia's economy as the pillars of CAGW crumble. Mr Tipler apparently supports those who would nobble Australia, hand over our sovereignty to the despots and dictators of dysfunctional UN and to Indonesian people-smugglers and thereby condemn Australia to a future of energy, border and military insecurity. Abbott has Australia's interests at heart---Christopher Tipler's mob will sabotage Australia in the interests of the global Left. Mr Tipler has deliberately and completely miscast Treasurer Hockey's budget measures and 'lifters and leaners' comment---as do his GreenLabor comrades---as just their latest tactic in the propaganda campaign against the interests of the Australian people. When he talks about the budget measures , he tries to create the impression that there are no safety nets accompanying them---and that there's no need for cuts . He's in conscious and militant denial of the change of government in 2013—as are his GreenLabor comrades. This is the first time in our history, that the party that lost in a landslide due to outrageous incompetence and corruption in its ranks, has virtually refused to hand over power in the orderly way always observed in a democracy, following an unequivocal verdict by voters---and so Australia has been subjected to a virtual GreenLabor/MSM coup from the day of Abbott's election, but planned before. Tony Abbott has a massive task in cleaning up the unprecedented mess that Labor has left our economy in...despite Mr Tipler's denials. Claims that ours is better than other world economies is just GreenLabor's red herring to deceive the Australian people, and the world. The people who really know ---the Treasury secretary under Labor and the head of the budget office, and our Reserve Bank Governor---all insistently agree that Labor left our budget situation and our economy in an extremely parlous situation, with expenditures built in that ensured record deficits for decades to come , and an unprecedently steep debt trajectory---steeper than those of all other OECD countries. The GFC that bedevilled the rest of the world hardly touched Australia because the Howard government had left its Labor successors a stellar economy, with a record surplus, zero government debt, very low unemployment, narrowing gap between rich and poor, Australians on a steeper trajectory to personal wealth than citizens of any other country in the world. Labor took the opportunity of the cover of the GFC to trash that situation with massive handouts to buy votes, and in the process produced six record deficits over their six years, and a burgeoning record debt---and squandered the once-in-a-century commodities boom. To top that off, to cripple Australia, GreenLabor broke an election promise and imposed the world's biggest across-the-country [ $23 per tonne, and rising yearly ] carbon tax and a mining tax, on an economy almost completely based on fossil fuels, since we have very little hydro and no nuclear power---the inevitable result being industry closures and flights, and increasing sovereign risk . The greatest impact on the Great Barrier Reef is not from warming, but from agricultural runoff and silt , and from the former Greens leader's Sea Shepherd which has just been convicted and fined for releasing oil into reef waters. The 'heartless attitude to refugees' Mr Tipler speaks of, is just Abbott's determination, with the very strong endorsement of the Australian people---to maintain our sovereign borders and thereby our security, and to prevent people who have deliberately destroyed their papers so we can't tell whether they're refugees or Islamic jihadists, from paying criminal people-smugglers to help them to force their way illegally into our country---most of them having passed through safe havens to hook up with the people-traffickers--- a prima facie indication that they're not refugees. Under GreenLabor's open door policy, more than 1200 people died at sea. GreenLabor is toxic to Australia---and Tony Abbott is our only hope . The facts are against you, Mr Tipler---and do you have a vested interest in CAGW and an ETS as many business climate enthusiasts do?

Trevor Bailey
July 20th, 2014
10:07 PM
Elena Douglas has written a fair & concise profile of not just our PM, but the economic challenges our country faces. While one may wish to sympathise with Mr Tipler's wish list of progressive reforms, life itself shows a marked determination to be more complicated. Indeed, if anything, the wisdom of Ms Douglas' observations concerning the standard fang-bearing antipathies which rear to strike at the PM is clearly borne out. Tough times ahead for the country, likely to be exacerbated by the re-election of big spending democratic socialists; but at least in our crippling indebtedness we shall then have achieved the progressive dream of cosmopolitanism, with all that mimicking the Rest of the World represents.

Christopher Tipler
July 8th, 2014
11:07 AM
As an Australian subscriber to your magazine, I cannot let Elena Douglas's assessment of Tony Abbott go unchallenged as her glowing appraisal of his qualities does not bear close inspection. Far from being a conservative hero, Abbott cuts a tragic figure on the Australian political scene. His almost complete absence of environmental and social sensitivity has Australians, and many overseas, aghast. Doomed, if he has his way, is The Great Barrier Reef, all of the existing, well-conceived, policy measures to address climate change, and what remains of Australia's native forests. Condemned also are vast sections of the Australian population that Abbott's Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has classified as 'leaners' in his new war against the 'mentality of entitlement' - the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and infirm. The world, in this ugly vernacular, belongs to the 'lifters' - apparently the rich and the privileged who have escaped almost unscathed in Abbott's first budget. To add an element of farce to this tragedy, Abbott has decreed that Australia is to reintroduce the British order of Knights and Dames - if the people cannot have bread, then let us entertain them with monarchist nonsense. Ms Douglas presents Abbott's wife and three daughters as some sort of evidence that he is not a misogynist, but this does not pass either. Abbott's sexist vilification of former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was on display for all of us to see, and it was utterly disgraceful. That she bore these slings and arrows with such dignity only casts his bullying, mean-spirited nature in a sharper light. Meanness of spirit? Yes. How else do you explain the heartless attitude towards refugees and the cutting of foreign aid to levels that are an international embarrassment. Ms Douglas seems to have swallowed, without consideration, the Abbott claim that Australia is living beyond its means and needs the brutal fiscal medicine that is now being applied. That is not true either, as any inspection of OECD data will reveal. By global standards, the Australian economy, and its debt levels, are in very good shape, as is the mining industry on which it currently depends. The ideology that drives Abbott and his cabinet is not in the spirit of true conservatism. The hallmark of that philosophy is embracing change in the context of preserving the best of what we have. Unbeknown to Abbott, Australia is already moving on to embrace both a new social order and the idea of sustainable development. Tony Abbott will be little more than a temporary roadblock in this process.

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