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Australia’s Next Prime Minister? An Interview with Tony Abbott

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?

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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.

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. (Australia’s two longest-serving prime ministers, Robert Menzies and John Howard, were Liberals, and the party has dominated the country’s politics since World War II.) “All successful societies are inherently conservative,” he says, leaning forward on the couch as his media adviser glances at me, “and Australia is undeniably a successful society” with its “high and rising standard of living,” “just and generally accepted institutions,” and “a relatively happy recent history.”

So does that mean he’s ready to declare victory? “Good Labor governments can tap into that basic conservatism, just as poorly performing coalition [conservative] governments can alienate a basically conservative electorate,” he says, smiling and avoiding the question. So while the public is “fairly more comfortable” with the idea of a Liberal-led government, “I think it’s inevitably got much more to do with their disappointment and dismay at the Gillard government.” (I chatted to Abbott before former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unceremoniously unseated Gillard and retook the prime ministership in June.)

As he settles back into the couch, I’m surprised by Abbott’s subdued rhetoric, though I shouldn’t be. His chief of staff, Peta Credlin, has kept him strictly on a bland message for the better part of two years (no easy task, given the outgoing Abbott personality). I try to draw him out: Is the promise of competence really the key to winning back Kirribilli House? “What I’m saying to people is, we’ll abolish the unnecessary new taxes, we’ll stop the boats [illegal immigrants], and we’ll get the budget back into the black,” plus trim regulatory red tape and build “flagship infrastructure.” “You’ve got to have specifics, you can’t just say you’re going to better manage,” he says.

Abbott is surely understating his case. The Labor-led government is in such disarray that the Liberals could probably take back Canberra by simply promising to manage the nation’s affairs competently. The rot started in 2009, when the Rudd government rolled out a stimulus plan that did little to boost the economy and was riddled with waste. One of the most infamous examples was a $2.45 billion (Australian dollars) home insulation initiative that, as the Australian reported, “was linked to four deaths, one hundred and twenty house fires, up to one thousand electrified roofs, and allegations of widespread rorting,” an Aussie term for financial graft.

Abbot has attacked these scandals with vigor. He ticks off a list of muck-ups, including “overpriced school halls,” a ban on live cattle imports from Indonesia, a “stuff up” over overseas television service contracts, the “to-ing and fro-ing over media regulation,” an Australia Day “riot” outside a breakfast he was attending that was “confected in the prime minister’s office,” and “the National Broadband Network, which has been described as ‘No Broadband Near Here,’” he says, with a laugh. “I mean, there’s any number of acts of ineptitude.”

“Politics is about a contest,” Abbott asserts, loosening up a bit. “The job of an opposition is not to agree with the bad government. The job of an opposition is to find the areas on which it differs from the government and to argue that case as strongly as it can. And that was the philosophy that I brought to the opposition leadership, and that was a contrast to the way the opposition had operated prior to my becoming the leader.” (Such now-rare spurts of frankness must irk the banker Turnbull, who still covets the leadership but has been kept in minor roles by Abbott.)

Abbott’s most effective political tactic has been to focus his attacks on a handful of failed Labor policies, and explain, in detail, how they affect the average Aussie voter. The Gillard government’s mining tax and especially its carbon tax, implemented in July 2012, have proved rich targets. “In order to reduce our emissions, businesses in Australia emitting more than twenty-five thousand tons of carbon dioxide every year have got to buy licenses at a very high price,” Abbott explains, leaning forward on the couch. “And inevitably, they pass the cost on to consumers, and this is a burden that their overseas competitors just don’t face.”

Abbott is mindful of his own party’s past mistakes as well as Labor’s failures. “We have been very careful, at least in recent years, not to alienate minority groups,” he says. Immigrants are “education-minded, family-oriented, small-business-building people, so they are natural conservatives if they are appealed to the right way.” In the 1980s, the Liberals “were at serious risk of alienating newcomers” and that was “a mistake,” he says. “There’s almost no one who’s a more dinky-die Australian than someone who has opted for this country. And the more exotic the background, the more carefully considered a decision it has invariably been, to choose Australia.”

The Liberal Party, like the Labor Party, has changed its tune over the years on free trade, too. “Australians have always been a bit skeptical about foreign investment, and each new wave has been greeted by a new wave of skepticism,” he says, smiling. “American investment in the 1960s was looked at askance because we were used to British investment. Japanese investment in the 1970s was looked at askance because that was new investment in those days. And now there is a degree of anxiety about Chinese and Middle Eastern investment. But in the end the vast majority of Australians understand that we need foreign investment.”

One of Abbott’s biggest challenges is that “a majority of households in this country are in receipt of some federal government assistance,” he notes. “Now, under those circumstances, the last thing any sensible politician would do, would be to be critical of people in receipt of benefits, because those benefits are going to them for a good reason,” he says, in a nod to Mitt Romney’s “forty-seven percent” gaffe. Abbott implemented work for welfare under the Howard government, which “resonated strongly, including with Labor voters, because people don’t like the something for nothing mind-set, which often goes hand in hand with a fairly passive welfare system.”

Abbott concedes that conservatism is on the retreat around the world, although that might be changing in the US, given the scandals that hit Washington this spring. He blames the financial crisis and the fact that the “charismatic center-left politicians who embraced market capitalism have passed from the scene”—politicians like Australia’s Bob Hawke, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. “Rather than heralding a sustained shift in center-left thinking, they now look to be aberrations,” he says. “The Rudd-Gillard government has been a highly statist government, the Brown government reverted to statism with a vengeance in Britain, and Obama is the most left-of-center government in at least half a century.” (At this, the media minder shifts in his chair.)

“Now I’m not being critical of Obama,” Abbott adds, soft-pedaling his response in a way he probably wouldn’t have a few years ago, when he was a minister in the Howard government. “He’s following a well-trod path. But I think it is a fact that the Obama government is a much more statist government than the Clinton administration.”

The conversation shifts briefly to foreign policy, though Abbott is clearly more comfortable on domestic topics. What does he think of the Obama administration’s renewed focus—at least, in rhetorical terms—on Asia? “Look, I welcome the so-called pivot to Asia,” Abbott says, “as does the Gillard government. But if all it is is a Marine brigade in Darwin in a few years’ time, that’s hardly going to change the strategic balance in this part of the world.” (The Obama administration negotiated a permanent deployment of twenty-five hundred troops to Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, by 2016, which is a small force given China’s vast and growing military forces.)

Does Abbott worry about Beijing’s intentions? “A certain amount of muscle flexing is probably inevitable,” he says, “given China’s growing economic and ultimately military strength.” He resorts to platitudes: “But our strong hope is that China will be a constructive part of the international community, rather than a long-term strategic rival to the United States . . . If you look at China’s history, China was almost certainly the world’s most powerful economy and the most sophisticated military a thousand years ago, but they never really created a far-flung empire.”

Does Abbott see America as a declining power? “We think that the United States is overwhelmingly a force for good in the world,” he says. Later he adds: “I’m a fundamental optimist about America, because I think America is a country with tremendous economic, institutional, and social strengths. But I think America goes through periods of doubt and introspection. And this may be one of them.” His minder hands me copies of Abbott’s speeches to supplement his remarks.

 

Australian political pros say the question now is whether Tony Abbott can stay on message until September, or perhaps later if Rudd delays the election into October. The momentum is in his favor, if state elections are any indication. Since 2010, the Liberals have won back Queensland, the home of former Prime Minister Rudd; Victoria, a stronghold of Labor; and New South Wales, which houses large swing votes in the Sydney suburbs. Abbott’s shadow cabinet, especially Treasurer Joe Hockey and his minister for climate, Greg Hunt, have grown into their roles and sound increasingly confident—and competent.

Abbott also benefits from the disarray within the federal Labor Party. Prime Minister Gillard never clearly articulated why she staged a coup to eject Rudd from power when he was prime minister, nor did she lay out a clear and coherent economic agenda. Little wonder that she suffered two leadership “spills” since August 2010. In the third, in June, she lost to Rudd by a 57–45 vote. He has since attacked Abbott’s policies vigorously, vowing to bridge the interests of business and unions and labeling himself a “proven” economic leader.

Despite the upheaval in Canberra, a few months is still a long time in Australian politics. Abbott makes clear he’s going to keep pounding away at the Labor Party’s missteps, especially when it comes to economic management, because “the public know that businesses and families have got to live within their means, and when they see government palpably not living within their means, they become concerned,” he says. “They realize the government has no alchemy at its command that means that it can defy the iron laws of economics forever.”

The minder having noted twenty minutes ago that my time was up, Abbott wraps up our chat. He leads me out the door, where we pass a photo collage of Australia’s prime ministers. I still can’t get him to game his chances of joining that roster, so I simply thank him for his time. He breaks into his trademark grin, pumps my hand, and says: “No worries, mate.”

Mary Kissel is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

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