It's Tony Abbott Time!

Australians awoke Sunday to a radically new political reality. The man that the local media and urban elites had labeled a misogynist and “mad monk” Catholic wiped out Labor’s tenuous hold on the House and convinced hundreds of thousands of voters to pull the lever for conservatives for the first time ever. At the latest count, the new government will sport a 38-seat majority in a 150-seat chamber. How did Tony Abbott do it?

The Liberal leader didn’t triumph from a natural position of strength. In 2010, he led Australia’s Liberal-National coalition to a razor-thin defeat, despite unprecedented turmoil atop his competitor’s party. If modern Australian history were any guide, Abbott would’ve slunk off to the back benches, licked his wounds, and hoped his mates would give him another shot at leadership in a future election. And the party would’ve changed tack.

Instead, the Liberals rallied around Abbott, who doubled down on his message of the virtues of smaller government, lower taxes, a balanced budget, and above all, a promise to roll back a crippling carbon tax, which has raised Australia’s electricity prices to some of the highest in the developed world. “Scrap the carbon tax, end the waste, stop the boats and build the infrastructure,” Abbott told ABC’s Leigh Sales just before the election, smiling. It was the same simple message, and variations thereof, he had repeated ad nauseam from Perth to Melbourne. It was a message aimed squarely at blue collar workers who aspired for more—the so-called “battlers” who had supported the last conservative government.

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Abbott had a remarkably long time to hone his pitch. Most opposition leaders last about a year, but the Liberals kept Tony for three years because they had tried the centrist route, with disastrous results. After losing power in 2007 to Kevin Rudd, a robotic former bureaucrat from Brisbane, the conservatives chose Brendan Nelson, a stately doctor from the north shores of Sydney. Nelson embraced the then-trendy climate-change hysteria and the need for fiscal stimulus as a bulwark against the global financial crisis.

The next leader, Malcolm Turnbull, a smooth-talking banker who hailed from Sydney’s tony Wentworth constituency, fared even worse. He dragged the party even more to the left, and the Liberals sank further in the polls. When Abbott challenged the telegenic Turnbull, he won by a hair, prompting snickers from his opponents. But it was then the party’s fortunes finally started to improve, as Abbott pulled the Liberals back to the right. Perhaps only a former Oxford blue and a fanatical sportsman who regularly trots out marathon-length bike rides, swims and runs, was the only man in the party who could physically endure such an elongated political fight.


Skeptics will argue that Abbott didn’t win the election, but rather, the Labor Party lost it. Certainly no Australian government since World War II has been as divided, nor suffered as many leadership challenges. After Rudd took over Kirribilli House in 2007, he enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings in history, only to be knifed in a backdoor coup in 2010 by his deputy, Julia Gillard. Rudd never sat quietly on the backbench, and challenged for the leadership twice before winning it back this summer. The leadership tussles made it difficult for Labor to portray an image to the public of strength and competence.

But then again, their policies didn’t inspire much voter loyalty, either. Under the Rudd-Gillard mantle, Canberra reregulated its labor market, turned a federal budget surplus into a deficit (albeit a far smaller one than America or Britain suffers from), demonized and taxed the country’s most productive industry (mining), installed a punishing carbon tax that forced energy prices up, and presided over a bungling administrative state that allowed fraud and waste to proliferate, especially given the flood of money pushed into stimulus programs. Australians hadn’t seen such a mess since the Whitlam days in the 1970s.

Nor was Rudd, whom I’ve met on occasion over the years, a particularly warm or likeable character. The Labor Party, which usually draws from career unionists or party hacks, only tolerated him in the interest of winning government. Australians were treated to stories of him bawling out a female flight attendant, mistreating his aides, and cursing at length while filming a video for his foreign affairs office. Not exactly a statesmanlike fellow, no matter how many selfies he posted on Twitter in an effort to “connect” with the average punter.

Abbott, by contrast, didn’t need to construct a political personality to commune with the public. He comes off as an Australian version of the everyman; the bloke who likes to play sports, cheer his local rugby team, throw a sausage on the barbie, and spend time with his family. His aides tried to rein in his off-the-cuff cracks but often failed. (At a recent rally for a young, female candidate, Abbott remarked she had “a bit of sex appeal.” She won the seat Saturday.) I wonder if Abbott’s win would’ve been even more crushing had he simply been more himself, more often, on the campaign trail.

On Saturday night, Abbott promised to deliver a “government of no surprises and no excuses,” as his mentor, former prime minister John Howard, looked on from the crowd. It was a poignant moment. Howard too was a political warrior who suffered electoral defeat before winning a federal election. He went on to manage the second-longest Liberal Party government in the country’s history. Prime Minister Abbott will be a fitting successor.

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

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