Tony Abbott is the first profile for Slow News Weekly. Strictly speaking he’s not especially deserving of the honour, given that he’s just a Liberal backbencher – but he’s so much more. In fact, Tony Abbott and the conservatives he represents are exerting more control over public policy than Prime Minister Turnbull would like to admit. Abbott is in public opposition to almost every key policy that Turnbull is trying to champion, despite Turnbull being his boss.
Turnbull’s voting yes. Abbott’s voting no. Turnbull has been a long time supporter of renewable energy. Abbott believes renewable energy is a waste of money. In the 90’s, Turnbull was pushing for Australia to become a republic. Abbott likes the royal family so much he went out of his way to give a special honour to Prince Phillip.
And with Turnbull’s poll numbers going down in recent weeks, there’s been speculation about Abbott making a come back as PM.
Looking back, it’s easy to see Abbott’s political ascendancy as pre-ordained. His background and education makes him the very definition of white, male privilege.
He was born in 1957 (which makes him 60 this year) in England. He arrived in Sydney when he was very small. He studied a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Law at the University of Sydney. He then went to Oxford, England, as a Rhodes Scholar. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
He was a student boxer, and had a respectable record as an amateur sportsmen.
After graduating Oxford, he entered the Catholic Seminary in Sydney, with the intention to become a priest. Despite staying in the seminary for several years, he didn’t complete his training. Upon reflection, he described himself as a square peg in a round hole, and he decided that he would not be an effective priest, but still felt a calling to serve others.
A year later, he married his wife, and they went on to have three daughters.
He worked as a journalist, he ran a concrete plant and began to get involved in national politics. He renounced his British citizenship, making him eligible to run for Aussie Parliament.
Health and Howard
Abbott ended up heading an organisation called the ‘Australians for Constitutional Monarchy’ that advocated against Australia becoming a republic. He gained respect from Liberal Party officials such as John Howard. Prior to this point, Abbott had been chummy with the Labor Party, but said he always felt uncomfortable about the role of unions and drifted towards the Liberal Party.
Under Howard’s urging, Abbott ran for the seat of Warringah in Northern Sydney. Abbott won it comfortably, and has been safe in that seat ever since. (Interestingly, the Australia Bureau of Statistics suggests that most of the people in Abbott’s seat support same-sex marriage.)
He served as secretary to a long line of ministers in his first years as a politician. It only took him two years to become a Minister himself when he took over the Health portfolio – not a small task for a politician so new to the House of Representatives. Abbott had a busy tenure, staying in the job until Howard lost office in 2007.
- He instigated the Nurse Family Partnership, aimed at improving conditions for indigenous youth by nurturing mother-child relationships. The scheme had success in reducing child abuse and improving school retention rates.
- He opposed access to the abortion drug RU486.
- He introduced the Medicare Safety Net to cap the maximum annual out-of-pocket costs to Medicare card holders.
- He expanded Medicare to include dentists and psychologists.
When the Liberal Party lost to Kevin Rudd’s Labor in 2007, Tony Abbott made a brief attempt at becoming Opposition Leader. Brendan Nelson ended up taking the spot, and then Malcom Turnbull. He wrote a book, titled Battlelines, and made his opinions clear on matters such as indigenous affairs (he supported the apology and the Northern Territory Intervention) and refugee policy (at this time there was a spike in boat arrivals and Abbott was determined to stop them). The book reads as an ambitious treatise for a man who was determined to become Prime Minister.
He overthrew Turnbull to become Leader of the Opposition in 2009. At the heart of the change was the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme’ proposed by Labor, which divided the opposition. The Scheme was designed to tax large industry that produced carbon emissions. Abbott wanted it dumped. It’s one chapter in a long history of Abbott repeatedly changing his mind on climate change and renewable energy. In this astonishing article from Crikey, it’s shown that Abbott has held seventeen conflicting views on climate change. His opinion tends to echo whatever view has the most personal political advantage for him at any time. In 2013, for example, when running for Prime Minister, he said he believed climate change was real and action was needed. Just last week, he was quoted as saying that climate change was a joke.
During his time in opposition, Abbott proposed new policy initiatives to fund six months paid parental leave by increasing corporate tax rates. The government opposed the initiative. He also worked with indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, and spent time as a teacher in remote indigenous communities such as Cape York. He also famously missed a vote for a stimulus package because he was too drunk to attend, having had too much red wine the night before.
The imploding mess of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd made the government an easy target for the Opposition. Abbott’s leadership was stable and ruthless. He led the Liberal National Party to victory in 2013.
Prime Minister Abbott
During his time as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott:
- Committed to ceasing illegal boat arrivals on the shores of Australia;
- Dumped the Carbon Tax that had been put in place by the Labor Government before him;
- Initiated a Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption that resulted in amendments to ditch more than 10,000 ‘red tape’ regulations. These included removing watchdog bodies that regulated charities and financial advisors to make sure they weren’t dodgy;
- Proposed 2014 budget was a publicity disaster and never managed to pass the Senate;
- Tried to reinstate the knight and dame system into the Order of Australia, with a desire to knight the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, the Queen’s husband, for services to Australia;
- Appointed Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of The House – a role that demands neutrality. Bishop’s favourability towards the Liberal Party was criticised, as was her $5,000 helicopter ride that was paid for with taxpayer money;
- Ate a raw onion for reasons best known to himself;
- Opposed any movement on same-sex marriage, eventually saying that he would let the matter come to a plebiscite following the next election.
But he never made it to the next election. After polls repeatedly saw Abbott’s popularity sinking with the public, Turnbull made a challenge and took over.
From the peanut gallery
Since moving to the back bench, Abbott has kept up a persistent media commentary, booking regular spots on conservative radio and television. He’s grabbed headlines for opposing pretty much any of Turnbull’s key issues. He’s made enough noise, and has enough backing from many of his colleagues, that Turnbull’s language has noticeably softened, particularly around action on climate change, renewable energy and same sex marriage. Just this morning, the Turnbull government has announced that they won’t pursue a clean energy target, which Turnbull was in favour of just a few months ago.
While many of Abbott’s policies over the years have rested in good and moral intentions, he has never been un-ambitious. He poses a threat to the current government, and keeps them in check from wondering too far to the left on key issues.
He publicly denies that he has a decent chance of becoming Prime Minister again. Now that Turnbull is consistently slipping in the polls – in part because of the paralysis on renewable energy and same sex marriage that Abbott’s commentary has triggered – the media is once again getting excited about its favourite topic: leadership spills.
We’ve done deep dives into refugee policy, climate change, energy policy, indigenous affairs and same sex marriage – all of which Abbott has had a massive affect on in the last few years. Check them out to find out more.
We’ll return on Friday with the news.
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