Newsmaker: Tony Abbott

The Australian prime minister survived a leadership challenge this week, but with his popularity waning in his home country and opinion polls against him, his days may still be numbered.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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As the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stared down an attempted mutiny by his own backbenchers this week, close allies warned that he would only vacate his parliamentary office “in a box”.

That came as no surprise to anyone who knows Abbott well. Even as a student politician, he was combative and ruthless. At Oxford University, he earned a boxing blue. In Canberra, he fought his way to the leadership of the conservative Liberal ­Party and then into government, following a convincing election victory.

He is what Australians call a “scrapper”, but he’s much more besides: a volunteer fireman and fitness fanatic who once dabbled with the Catholic priesthood; a Rhodes scholar who has previously derided the concept of climate change; a dogmatic, abrasive and intensely loyal man.

The 57-year-old is also the first to admit that he has many flaws and weaknesses. The latter include an unqualified admiration for the British monarchy. His knighting last month of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, without consulting colleagues or advisers, caused long-­simmering discontent among federal Liberal politicians to boil over.

To his critics, it demonstrated that he was disconnected from mainstream Australians – in an opinion poll, only 12 per cent of people supported the move – as well as showing a worrying lack of judgement. Either he didn’t anticipate the political damage the knighthood would cause, they argued, or he didn’t care.

But Abbott has always ploughed his own furrow, driven not only by strongly held principles, but a sense of his own destiny. That sense was implanted in him by his mother, who, so the story goes, was fond of saying he would either become prime minister or the Pope.

Ending up as the former, he has won plaudits for his tough stance on security and ­terrorism-related issues, particularly after the Sydney cafe siege in December, in which the Iranian-born Man Haron Monis was killed, along with two of his hostages. The threat to Australia from ISIL-related groups or “lone wolves” was reinforced this week, when police foiled an alleged plot by two men – the Iraqi-born Omar Al-Kutobi, 24, who came to Australia as a refugee, and Mohammad Kiad, 23, who moved from Kuwait in 2012 – to carry out an imminent attack in Sydney.

Police say they seized a machete, a hunting knife, an ISIL flag and a video in a raid on a garage in Sydney’s western suburbs. Abbott alleged in parliament yesterday that, in the video, the pair outlined plans to attack people by “stabbing the kidneys and striking the necks”.

However, some Muslim organisations and community leaders have been unimpressed by ­Abbott’s handling of security issues. In August, abandoning plans to water-down racial discrimination laws, he explained that he needed Australian Muslims to “join Team Australia” in supporting a security clampdown. The implication was disturbing: all Muslims are ­terrorists.

Abbott’s family lived in London when he was born in 1957, but migrated to Australia when he was 3. He grew up on Sydney’s leafy north shore and attended a prestigious Jesuit college.

At the University of Sydney, where he studied economics and law, he waged an aggressive campaign to break what he saw as the left-wing domination of student politics. After his spell at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, he entered a Catholic seminary. But he left after three years and married his wife, Margie, with whom he has three daughters.

Despite that wealth of female company, Abbott – who entered the federal parliament in 1994 after running a campaign to prevent Australia from becoming a republic, and became health minister in 2003 – has always been perceived as having a “problem” with women. One of his predecessors as prime minister, the Australian Labor Party’s Julia Gillard, accused him of rampant misogyny and sexism in a speech in 2012.

Although those close to him insist he believes in gender equality, Abbott has not helped his own case. In 2010, he warned the housewives of Australia that “as they do the ironing”, an emissions-trading scheme proposed by Labor would lead to higher electricity prices.

Before the election of September 2013, which the Liberals won in coalition with the rural-based National Party, he highlighted the “sex appeal” of one of his ­female candidates. In government, he appointed just one woman – the foreign-affairs minister Julie Bishop – to his cabinet and, surprisingly appointed himself Minister for Women.

As likely to be seen in cycling Lycra or swimming trunks as in a business suit, Abbott is a triathlete and marathon runner, giving him a somewhat macho image. Touring the country, he likes to visit factories and don a hard hat, hang out with fire crews or jump in a lorry driver’s cab.

As prime minister, his gaffes have caused wider ripples. During a visit to Canada in July, he referred to the country as “Canadia”. After Malaysian Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, he threatened to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin at last November’s G20 summit in Brisbane. (At the event, the two leaders were photographed cuddling koalas together.)

But Abbott was also praised for his strong response to MH17, with Australia – along with the Dutch – leading international efforts to access the crash site, investigate the downing of the plane and bring the dead home. He displayed similar grit and resolve during the search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean last year.

Abbott is considered to have performed better on the international stage than at home. He is particularly close to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but also gets on well with the American President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

He has also had his differences with some of those leaders, particularly over climate change. After Abbott tried to prevent the issue from being discussed at the G20 summit, Obama pointedly expressed fears for the future of the Great Barrier Reef during a speech in Brisbane.

A former sceptic who says he now accepts the science behind man-made climate change, Abbott has downscaled Australia’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions. He has scrapped a carbon-pricing policy introduced by Gillard, and has also abolished a tax on the “super profits” of big mining ­companies.

Although Australia signed a free-trade agreement with China last year, relations between the two countries have been cool at times under his watch. His government also endured a period of decidedly frosty relations with Indonesia, which followed revelations that Australian spies had monitored the mobile phone of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Another source of friction between the two countries has been repeated incursions into Indonesian waters by Australian naval ships seeking to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers.

While Abbott has kept a pre-election promise to “stop the boats”, his government has been criticised as unduly harsh. Inmates at an Australian-run detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – where a 23-year-old Iranian, Reza ­Barati, was murdered by security guards and islanders during a riot in 2014 – staged a hunger strike last month.

The Abbott government has decreed that no asylum seeker who arrives by sea will ever live in Australia. Those picked up before the boats stopped were sent to offshore centres on Manus or the South Pacific island of ­Nauru. The former, if deemed refugees, are to be resettled in Papua New Guinea; the latter in Cambodia.

Many Australians approve of such measures. By contrast, what has made Abbott so deeply unpopular with voters, reflected by almost every opinion poll, is an “austerity” budget announced in May that was seen as targeting low earners. Among its most reviled measures are the introduction of a fee for visiting a family doctor and the deregulation of university fees.

The government argues that tough action is needed to reduce the country’s 40.4 billion Australian dollar (Dh114.09bn) budget deficit – a goal that has become more pressing as the 20-year mining boom ends, slowing the Australian economy.

Abbott has broken pre-election promises not to cut funds for health or education, while he has upset environmentalists by allowing the Western Australian government to trap and kill threatened great white sharks.

This week, Abbott bought himself some time, with a majority of his Liberal MPs and senators rejecting a back-bench motion that would have thrown the party leadership – and the prime ministership – open.

However, if the polls continue to be dire, he’s unlikely to survive another uprising, even with all the pugilistic talents he has so amply demonstrated.

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