Magazine article World Affairs

Australia's Next Prime Minister? an Interview with Tony Abbott

Magazine article World Affairs

Australia's Next Prime Minister? an Interview with Tony Abbott

Article excerpt

When Tony Abbott first ran for prime minister of Australia, he sensed the election was on a knife's edge, so the fitness fanatic did what came naturally: He stayed awake for the campaign's final thirty-six hours. After a 6 a.m. appearance at a Brisbane fruit market, he whizzed through a construction site, met with a mothers' group, toured a mining equipment company, and then flew south to Sydney, where he speechified, played a game of tennis, drank at a pub, chatted with cops, heaved fish with fishmongers, fielded sunrise media interviews, and donned a team shirt at a local rugby pitch, all as only part of a day that finally culminated in the Wentworth Hotel that evening, where he greeted a crowd of Liberal Party supporters, many of whom hefted beers and cheered.

The energy in the room that night was unusual, and relatively new. The opposition Liberals, like America's Republicans today, suffered serious self-doubt. They had endured two weak leaders in two short years: Brendan Nelson, a party stalwart, and Malcolm Turnbull, a millionaire banker. The Liberals needed someone who could articulate the virtues of smaller government, lower taxes, immigration reform, and a strong defense. Abbott, a former Jesuit seminarian known for his bluntness, seemed an unlikely choice.

Yet Abbott came close to winning in August 2010. Labor, rallying behind the nation's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, cobbled together a coalition of the Green Party and "country" independents to hold onto power by a single parliamentary seat. But Abbott demonstrated that traditional conservatism was far from dead Down Under. Could he hold on to his grip over the party and lead them to victory in this year's election? Or will Labor regroup once again and retain office?

The question matters because Australia is no longer a peripheral ally of America, especially as China flexes its muscles and North Korea threatens to spark a North Asian nuclear race. As the Obama administration slashes the Pentagon's budget, Australia is taking on an ever more important role as a key democratic ally in an increasingly volatile region. So whoever runs the country after September's election will be of great interest to Washington and other democracies around the world.

It is a surprise to many Australians--and perhaps to Tony Abbott himself--that he could be that man. Though he's a former Rhodes scholar, Abbott's regular guy--ness accounts for much of his popular appeal, especially with men. He loves to surf and spend time with his three daughters and wife, Margie. He attends mass regularly; he has cultivated deep and long-standing ties to London and Washington's conservative political elites. And since 1994 he has been the MP for Warringah, a Sydney electorate that includes the beautiful Mosman, Neutral Bay, and Balmoral suburbs.

He's also averse to foreign press interviews. The first time I requested a meeting, I was told Abbott preferred to speak with Australian reporters. When I approached him at a Canberra lunch in 2010, he said, sheepishly, that he was under strict instruction not to speak with me. So it was something of a coup to sit down with him in March at the party's drab offices on William Street in downtown Sydney, near Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House, with a junior spokesman in an armchair beside us looking distinctly uncomfortable, a notepad and pen at the ready.

Abbott, with his distinctive, wide, toothy grin and prominent ears, is all smiles on this Friday late afternoon. And no wonder: He is once again fighting an election campaign where the momentum is on his side. The ruling Labor-Green Party coalition is in freefall, while the Liberal-National Party coalition is on the rise in the run-up to the September 14th election. At the time of our meeting, Abbott had overtaken Gillard as the more favored choice for prime minister for the first time, and that poll has remained in his favor.

I started by asking Abbott if he thinks Australia is an inherently conservative country, as a polite way of asking him if he's optimistic about his electoral chances. …

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