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Conservatism on Top Down Under

Meet Tony Abbott, the likely next prime minister of Australia

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Melbourne
Absent a stunning reversal of fortune, Tony Abbott is a good bet to be the next prime minister of Australia. He’s the head of the Liberal party, which is expected to capture Parliament from the Labor party in the national election on September 7. In today’s politics, Liberals are misnamed. They’re actually the conservative party in Australia. So if all goes well, Abbott will become one of the world’s leading conservatives.

Tony Abbott campaigning in 2010

Tony Abbott campaigning in 2010

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Abbott, 55, is an aggressive partisan once described as “one of the great head-kickers of Australian politics.” Karl Rove isn’t his only American admirer. Abbott is a social conservative who opposes abortion, is leery of gay marriage, doesn’t hide his Catholic beliefs, and even defends the monarchy.

In Australia—where the political, intellectual, and journalistic classes tend to be very secular—Abbott has been called a religious zealot, a throwback, and “anti-woman.” When he dismissed same-sex marriage as “a fashion of the moment,” he was dubbed a “20th-century man.” That’s not a compliment. Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, a Laborite, summed up the attacks on Abbott with a quip: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” It wasn’t meant entirely as a joke.

Abbott insists he has no plans as prime minister to restrict abortions. Still, his view is that abortion “should be safe, legal, and rare—and I underline rare.” Australia’s 100,000 abortions a year, he said in a 2004 speech, are “this generation’s legacy of unutterable shame.”

Abbott’s campaign doesn’t focus on social issues. He doesn’t even mention them unless asked. But social issues stalk him. Abbott recently interviewed American singer Katy Perry on the radio. He asked when she would be touring Australia. “Oh, come on,” she responded. “That’s not a political question. Let’s talk about gay marriage.” She said voters should speak out against Abbott’s position on gay marriage.

Abbott is a victim of liberal intolerance. He has suffered for his social views and religion. Covering the campaign, I heard it said that Abbott “wears his religion on his sleeve.” But he does little more than acknowledge his Catholicism when that subject arises. It’s often noted in press stories that Abbott studied to be a priest. He did, in his 20s, before dropping out of seminary.

A notion propagated by his critics holds that if the Liberal party—allied with the small National party in what’s known as the Coalition—should win the upcoming election, it will be despite Abbott. If the party were led by someone without Abbott’s baggage, the theory goes, it would rout Labor by a larger margin and give Liberals a lopsided majority in Parliament.

This is pure speculation. We’ll never know if it’s true. What we do know is Abbott, a Rhodes scholar and ex-newspaperman, brushed aside one Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, and has put his party in a position to defeat another, Kevin Rudd. This is no small achievement.

Nor has Abbott been unnerved by upheaval in Labor’s ranks and the dramatic return of Rudd from exile. The who’s up and who’s down of Australian politics can be hard to follow. But in June, Rudd ousted Gillard, who had replaced him as Labor leader in 2010, to become prime minister for the second time. Gillard abruptly retired. Out of the blue, Abbott had a new and presumably more competitive opponent.

Rudd hit the ground running to the right. He outflanked Abbott on immigration, vowing that no “boat people” would be allowed into Australia. He said the carbon tax would have to go and promised reforms to end labor union corruption. The Australian edition of the Spectator said this reflected Abbott’s success. To win, Rudd figured he had to be tougher than “his conservative nemesis.”

And those weren’t the only surprises in the candidate switch. Dumping Gillard in favor of Rudd was a desperate move by Labor to increase its chances in the election, all the more so because Rudd, 55, is heartily disliked by members of his own party. Their experience with him as prime minister from 2007 to 2010 was an unhappy one, marked by frequent clashes and Rudd’s flakiness.

Laborites told me how “destructive” Rudd had been to the party as prime minister. I assumed they felt safe speaking ill of Rudd to a foreign journalist. Then I discovered they had said the same, or worse, to Australian reporters and columnists.

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