Leader of the Opposition
Born in: London, England
Home Town: Sydney
Tony Abbott is a storyteller. And that's the secret of his success as Australia's most effective ever Opposition Leader.
Yes, he narrowly lost the 2010 election. But consider the state of the federal Liberals when he became leader at the end of 2009. It had spent more than two years, back to the last months of John Howard's prime ministership, racked with leadership problems and was badly trailing the government in the polls.
Within eight months Abbott had seen off Kevin Rudd and nearly knocked off Julia Gillard. And just over two years later, he is on course to become prime minister in a landslide, albeit with 16 months to go until the election.
Labor's own internal problems helped. But Abbott deployed a limited arsenal to devastating effect.
As opposition leader, Abbott has been relentlessly negative; he himself admits he's suffered damage with voters because of it. But it is how he has been negative that is key – by creating simple, effective narratives about the government and Gillard.
His greatest creation remains the reframing of the emissions trading debate into one about a "great big new tax" that intimidated Rudd. Labor has been unable to find an effective response. That's mostly because Labor itself is hopeless at offering compelling narratives, for reasons we will explore later in this series.
Like Gillard, Abbott is a transitional figure to a new generation of political professionals. Both he and Gillard had non-political careers before entering politics, although Abbott's stints in journalism (and other periods as a seminarian and managing a concrete plant) were shorter and less successful than Gillard's career as a lawyer.
He later joined John Hewson as a media adviser and helped write much of the Fightback package, which required him, he noted in his book Battlelines, to master the arguments for its major policies -- including the GST and workplace relations reform. This, on top of Abbott's regular writing as a young right-wing student, was all training for Abbott's remarkable skills at crafting narratives.
It's also useful that Abbott has a great capacity for ideological flexibility. Stereotypically, this could be put down to the strong role of the Jesuits in his early education (Aloysius and Riverview in Sydney, then St John's at Sydney University, like Joe Hockey, then Oxford).
But while he once boasted of being the ideological lovechild of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop, that's wholly misleading: Abbott's intellectual tradition is of big government conservatism of a type found equally in the Catholic Right of the Labor Party, with which Abbott flirted in the 1980s.
Nor has he ever been hardline economically dry; indeed, in 1994, he claimed that floating the dollar had been "exceedingly dubious outcome for Australia" and we should return to pegged rates. Peter Costello famously dismissed his economic credentials.
All that flavours Abbott's politics to this day: his support for middle class welfare, including his own "Rolls Royce" paid parental leave scheme, his multi-billion dollar "direct action" handouts program for climate change and his extended flirtation, only recently pulled up by Joe Hockey, with industry assistance. Abbott is prone to changing his position on even the most important issues, having maintained at various times that the planet was cooling, that a carbon tax was the best means of climate action and that Rudd's CPRS should be passed.
This lack of intellectual consistency is immensely valuable when it comes to crafting narratives about your opponent.
Nonetheless, Abbott's got some key problems. One is his remarkable unpopularity with voters, despite the Coalition's vast lead in the polls. Julia Gillard's unpopularity is understandable – as Abbott has ensured, she is seen as having repeatedly broken promises to voters. Abbott has broken no commitments, has engaged in no major backflips and has not disappointed voters, but he is nearly as disliked, and sometimes even more disliked, than Gillard.
Put simply, female voters dislike him, and Abbott is decidedly blokey. A former boxer who still gets around in Speedos at 54, he had a habit during his earlier Canberra days of offering to conclude drunken dinner party conversations outside using his fists (with, invariably, charming apologies the morning after). The physicality has, bit by bit, been toned down since he became Opposition Leader.
And Abbott is aware of the problem, and is desperate to remedy it – his commitment to his paid parental leave scheme is driven by a perceived need to shake off the widely-held perception of misogyny arising from his controversial years as Health Minister under John Howard.
The question for Abbott remains whether he has the capacity for telling positive stories as well as he can tell the negative ones. That may not need to be answered before the next election; such is the Coalition's lead that there may be minimal pressure to offer a full suite of detailed policies.
But once in office, Abbott won't have the luxury of thriving off negativity. He'll have to deploy his skills to the task of explaining to voters where he wants to take Australia and how he's going to do it. It will be far harder than canny lines like "a great big new tax".