Goodbye 'angry Tony', hello 'stern Tony'

Australia's 27th prime minister shows a curious reticence to take up his post.

    Goodbye 'angry Tony', hello 'stern Tony'
    Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott swept into office in a landslide election [Reuters]

    Melbourne, Australia - For a man who campaigned tirelessly to become Australia's next leader, Tony Abbott is showing a curious reticence about actually taking up his post.

    Tomorrow, when Governor-General Quentin Bryce commissions him as the country's 28th Prime Minister, it will be 11 days since the electorate voted his Liberal-National Party coalition back into power after six years in the wilderness.

    Normally, the country's new top jockey is firmly in the saddle within days - certainly no more than a week - of gaining a mandate to govern. After the election three years ago, Australians had to wait 17 days to discover who they'd chosen to rule them - but that election ended in a virtual dead heat, making it a rare exception. 

    Get more of our in-depth coverage here

    Abbott has scarcely been idle since polling day. He has taken his time - and then some - deciding who will serve in his cabinet and who must miss out.

    The coalition's majority - it will have some 90 seats in the 150-seat parliament - is so comfortable that restlessness in his own ranks is likely to create more troubles for Abbott than the opposition Labor Party is capable of producing.

    Anyway, Labor is preoccupied with choosing a new leader of its own, now that Kevin Rudd has announced his decision to step down.

    Socially conservative Abbott dismayed many in his party when he unveiled the cabinet on Monday, revealing that only one female MP would be on his parliamentary front bench - Western Australia's Julie Bishop, who becomes the nation's third foreign minister in less than two years.

    The first woman to serve in Australia's top political job, Julia Gillard, warned in June that if Abbott were elected there would be hardly any women in his cabinet. Women, she predicted, would be marginalised under a male-dominated government led by him.

    Gillard was derided at the time for fearmongering and igniting "gender wars", even though she had won global acclaim a year previously for a devastating attack on Abbott in parliament, during which she branded him a misogynist.

    In that June speech, she forecast that if one Abbott minister "wearing a blue tie" were to leave their ministry, they would be replaced by "another man in a blue tie".

    At the time, the media ridiculed her - and even some traditional Labor supporters wondered whether she wasn't sounding a little unhinged.

    Today, as Abbott prepares to select his tie - perhaps aided by his wife, Margie - for the trip to Government House to be officially sworn in, Gillard is looking less like a feminist firebrand and more like a prophet.

    What has become known as her "Blue Tie Speech" can now be seen to have had a talismanic theme. It wasn't about neckwear after all, but about the image of uniformity, and his detractors would say dullness, that Abbott seems determined to promote.

    Political contrast

    Once known for the unpredictability of his utterances - 1980s PM Bob Hawke has memorably called the Liberal leader "as mad as a cut snake" - Abbott has good political reason for creating such an impression.

    Rudd - the first man since mid-century Robert Menzies to return to the prime ministership after having lost it - was charismatic. The popularity ratings he enjoyed for most of his first term were consistently among the highest registered for any Australian politician.

    By contrast, Abbott enters office with more people disapproving of him than approving. His personal popularity with voters lagged behind both Rudd's and Gillard's for years, and even while voting him into office barely 40 per cent of the electorate told pollsters they expected him to be a better PM than the man he would replace.

    What many who dislike him forget is that Abbott is no intellectual chump. Determined to be dull he may be, but he isn't. He was a Rhodes Scholar, is a published author, and if the title of his 2011 memoir "Battlelines" only affirms his combative reputation.

    The truth, so far as analysts can know the public mind, is that Tony Abbott owes his elevation most of all to voters' perception that Labor in power grew dysfunctional, chopping and changing leaders, and waging vicious vendettas among themselves rather than focusing on the good of the nation.

    The new PM has been a supremely successful opposition leader - but "angry Tony" is not the character many people want to see occupying the highest elected office in the land.

    Having learnt the lesson Labor failed to heed - that, in politics, disunity is death - Abbott's mindset (you can see it in the earnest frown that besets his features when he fronts a press conference) ranks party discipline above all else.

    He scaled his personal Everest, not so much because the country moved to the right - though both parties have embraced market economics over the past 30 years - as because the electorate wrote Labor off as a divided rabble.

    One reason Australia is considered a safe investment choice is its political stability. But the internal instability Labor displayed never threatened to destabilise the economy. Whatever the coalition said about a "budget emergency" during the campaign is belied by the snail-like progress Abbott is making towards assuming his official responsibilities.

    But Labor's self-inflicted notoriety as the party of discord that "lost its way" (and its heart, soul and purpose into the bargain) has delivered government to Abbott and his so-far united team - and it is a lesson he is unlikely to forget.

    In his acceptance speech last Saturday week, Abbott told a Sydney hotel room full of jubilant supporters that his immediate task would be "forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy, and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people".

    He has repeated the words "methodical" and "methodically" so often these past few weeks that it will clearly be the keynote to his style of government.

    A man who knows he doesn't have charisma, and that success and popularity are different things, is expected to work overtime at running as boring a government as possible. Last week he told a breakfast TV audience it was "no bad thing to live in a country where people turn to the sports pages of the newspapers first".

    So it's goodbye "angry Tony", hello "stern Tony". Like his hero, Howard, he casts himself in the role of strongman defending the country's borders against an influx of asylum-seekers that in moments of extreme rhetoric he has likened to an invasion.

    While he strives to be a steady pair of hands at the helm, it would be a mistake to under-estimate his capacity for divisive policymaking. Conservatives such as Abbott, a staunch monarchist, appeal most to insecure traditionalists.

    The nation's evolution away from its largely Anglo-Celtic roots has quickened in the past generation. The most recent census, in 2011, found 27 per cent of its citizens had been born overseas.

    The multicultural character of the population may be a fact, but whether someone recognises, deplores or welcomes that fact has for years now been a marker of where they stood on the political spectrum.

    Broadly speaking, the Left is for multiculturalism, the Right tolerant or critical of it. The last conservative prime minister, John Howard, was renowned for his Anglocentric worldview. He turned "multiculturalism" into something of a dirty word in the nation's political lexicon.

    Those who suspect the coalition parties have not shifted to the left on this issue - despite immigration being at record levels under Howard - will be muttering into their skinny lattes this morning at the incoming PM's second decision, to abolish the Ministry of Multiculturalism. His first being to reduce female representation in the Cabinet to one-third the number of women serving in Afghanistan's government.

    This sits at odds with Tony Abbott's campaign rhetoric celebrating the nation's diversity.

    Xenophobia has been part of the national make-up since the days of the White Australia policy. These days it may be less overt, but a hankering for uniformity still exists in this respect as in others.

    It remains to be seen whether Abbott will cultivate the darker side of the Australian psyche, but downgrading multiculturalism doesn't sound like an auspicious start for a Prime Minister who only last week promised - as all incoming leaders do - "to govern for all".

    Ken Haley is a journalist and author of Emails from the Edge.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Visualising every Saudi coalition air raid on Yemen

    Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states have launched more than 19,278 air raids across Yemen.

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Lost childhoods: Nigeria's fear of 'witchcraft' ruins young lives

    Many Pentecostal churches in the Niger Delta offer to deliver people from witchcraft and possession - albeit for a fee.

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    Why did Bush go to war in Iraq?

    No, it wasn't because of WMDs, democracy or Iraqi oil. The real reason is much more sinister than that.