Harper’s model from down under

Abbott likes to be photographed in Speedos and called PM Kevin Rudd a ‘toxic bore’

Michael Ignatieff is safe for the moment, but there is one Liberal leader whose party showed him the door this month. Malcolm Turnbull led Australia’s Liberal opposition until Dec. 2—when the party’s parliamentary caucus voted 42-41 to strip him of the top job and give it to Tony Abbott instead.

That made a few well-tuned Conservative ears here in North America perk up. Recall that in Australia summer is winter and the Liberal party is home to the country’s conservatives. (The main party they face, the left-leaning government, is formed by Labor under the blandly reassuring Kevin Rudd.) John Howard’s 1996 Liberal election victory was one of the models for Stephen Harper’s Canadian election win a decade later.

Tony Abbott’s sudden rise is no guarantee of anything. His party is still well behind Rudd’s in the polls. But the kind of guy Tony Abbott is has won him the attention of people close to Harper.

“He combines Stockwell Day’s religiosity and athleticism with Stephen Harper’s ideology and intellect,” one Canadian Conservative said to me in an email.

Abbott won the Liberal leadership by opening a big gap between his party and Labor where his predecessor had sought accord on a big issue: climate change. Rudd won the 2007 election by propounding an emissions cap and trade scheme. The aging Howard, desperate to appear hip and modern, supported Rudd’s idea, but the younger man was more credible on the issue and the left won the day. Other short-lived Liberal leaders have followed suit: Turnbull, the guy Abbott whacked in the caucus vote, remains a staunch supporter of cap and trade.

But Abbott has never shied away from the politics of division. If he’s a blend of Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, it’s the Day side you see first. A young, strapping 52, he’s a trained bush fireman and former boxer who attended Catholic seminary school (as a result, he’s sometimes called the “Mad Monk”). In the ’90s, he served as director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy when his country’s constitutional debate over getting rid of the British crown was heating up.

He’s fond of showing up at the beach, within sight of news cameras, in teeny Speedo bathing suits—“budgie smugglers” in the local parlance. When he became his party’s third leader since its 2007 defeat, he cheerfully shared with reporters his daughter’s opinion that he is nothing but a “gay, lame, churchie loser.”

And yet. He may be a seminarian with a fondness for swimwear, but he was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (a decade after Michael Ignatieff won the same honour). He served in three cabinet posts in the Howard government.

Abbott shares Harper’s fondness for sharpening differences at least as often as he chooses to blunt them. He’s called Rudd “a toxic bore,” and, in October, he labelled the notion that humans cause global warming “absolute crap.”

He likes to call Rudd’s cap and trade scheme “a great big new tax on everything.” With some support from smaller parties, the Liberals have now managed to block passage of cap and trade twice in Australia’s parliament. Stymied on a key government policy, Rudd is now in a position to call elections a year early. But as of early this week he seemed reluctant to face Abbott too soon.

Abbott, the Mad Monk with the closet full of budgie smugglers, knows he is still a long shot to ever beat Rudd. A poll taken less than a week after Abbott ousted his predecessor showed he’s now nine points likelier to be named as respondents’ preferred prime minister, while Rudd’s score has fallen by five points. But that still leaves Rudd streets ahead, at 60 per cent to 23 per cent.

“If we win the election I’ll be regarded as a genius,” Abbott told an interviewer. “If we don’t win I’ll probably be political roadkill at some point in time.”

So Tony Abbott will stand or vanish based on luck and local circumstances, and he wouldn’t be of much concern to you or me, except for this: despite his Rhodes pedigree, Abbott is his country’s standard-bearer in a battle between what you could call a new conservatism and a new liberalism. This is a class conflict to its boots, and the conservatives—Harper Conservatives here, Abbott Liberals down under—explicitly don’t represent blue-blood bankers, preferring instead to throw in their lot with the middle and working classes.

In a clash of values between city and suburbs, Abbott appeals to suburbs. He concedes university graduates to Rudd while seeking support among community college grads and Australians who work in the skilled trades. It’s the same ground Richard Nixon staked out in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the ground the U.S. Republicans seek but can’t yet control in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory last year.

It’s the ground Stephen Harper won on in 2006 and used to expand his base in 2008. The example of Tony Abbott is reminding some around Harper that confrontation can be smarter than conciliation. That kind of attitude won’t win a broad coalition of support. But in Canada, about 40 per cent is all you need for a majority. Harper has always preferred models who don’t shy from a fight. He has a new model.

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