Tony Abbott, Australia’s conservative opposition leader, has led his Liberal-National Coalition to victory in the country’s 2013 federal election.
The straight-talking, pugnacious and socially conservative politician – nicknamed the “Mad Monk” after once training to be a Roman Catholic priest – won the opposition leadership in December 2009 by just one vote to take over a flailing coalition.
Abbott performed strongly in opinion polls since then, sufficiently rattling the ruling Labor party that it dumped Kevin Rudd as prime minister in favour of Julia Gillard in June 2010, as polls indicated the government was headed for defeat.
Abbott almost led the Liberal-National Coalition to victory in federal elections in August 2010, when the Coalition and Labor each won 72 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, four short of the requirement for majority government.
However, the first hung parliament since the 1940 election resulted in Labor forming a minority government with the support of three independent members of parliament and one Australian Greens MP.
Abbott’s tough asylum-seeker policies and three-word slogans have resonated with many Australians. Labor has toughened its stance on the issue; however, Gillard was not as effective in engaging with the public as her rival. Labor replaced her with Rudd in June 2013, amid dire opinion polls.
Labelled a ‘misogynst’
The two leaders engaged in fiery parliamentary debates during Gillard’s three years as prime minister. After Abbott called on Gillard to sack an independent member aligned with her ruling Labor Party for using offensive sexual language, she replied that she would “not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man”.
“Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror,” she said.
Abbott’s straight-talking is liked by many Australians, but his “shoot-from-the-lip” style has offended sections of the population and sometimes landed him in trouble. During the 2013 federal election campaign, he described Liberal candidate Fiona Scott as having “sex appeal” – 24 hours after he hit international headlines for mistakenly saying “suppository of all knowledge”.
He once said politicians did not always tell the truth and that the statements that should be “taken absolutely as gospel truth” were “those carefully prepared, scripted remarks”.
Abbott has frequently been caught swearing in front of the cameras and had to shrug off as “a bit of hyperbole” earlier comments that climate-change science was “crap”. After winning the opposition leadership position, Abbott asked the public to give him a clean slate, acknowledging “that at times, I have stuffed up” as his deputy, Julie Bishop, mouthed: “That’s true.”
The London-born 55-year-old, whose parents moved to Australia in 1960, holds a bachelor’s degree in law and economics from the University of Sydney and a masters’s degree in politics and philosophy from Oxford.
Abbott is a leading conservative intellectual who marshalled opposition to the government’s emissions trading plan to secure the leadership. He has opposed attempts to make Australia a republic, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriages, and a 40 percent “super tax” on mining profits.
The fitness buff has appeared regularly in swimming trunks while training for surf lifesaving duty, adding to his reputation as a publicity-savvy operator. The keen cyclist reportedly had to swap his bicycle for jogging while campaigning for the 2013 election, because his security staff struggled to keep up with him.
Abbott studied at a seminary before changing career paths, saying he was too interested in attractive women to become a priest. He worked as a journalist before entering parliament in 1994, and rose to become health minister under John Howard’s government.
The Rhodes scholar, who once represented Oxford University at boxing, has never been shy of a parliamentary battle, and his tough campaign style was a major factor ending Labor’s six-year rule in the 2013 poll.