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Analysis: Australians embrace Tony Abbott's vision of housewives, closed borders and economic fixes.
Update: On Saturday, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd conceded election defeat after exit polls suggested landslide victory for Tony Abbott.
PARIS, France — Comparisons in international politics are often futile. But given that President Barack Obama once described British Prime Minister David Cameron as a "lightweight," one can only imagine what his assessment of Tony Abbott might be.
Abbott is the man most likely to become the next prime minister of Australia. On Saturday, his party is expected to defeat the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
And that could alter the world's benevolent view of Australia.
An ex-boxer who once trained for the priesthood, Abbott remains a staunch Catholic with strong anti-abortion views.
He has modeled himself on the "bloke next door," the family man Australians can trust. For most of his campaign he was flanked by his tall, coquettish adult daughters. The three young women have apparently succeeded more as objects to ogle than in modernizing their father's views.
"If you want to know who to vote for," he told the Australian Big Brother house, "I'm the guy with the not bad looking daughters."
As a student, he wrote, “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.” When questioned by an interviewer, he declined to repudiate that notion.
On another occasion he sent Twitter into a frenzy by praising a female candidate’s "sex appeal." He later said he needed to be told by staffers why the comment had upset so many people.
It’s this ignorance of the modern world that makes Abbott look a bit like Crocodile Dundee, in a suit, running for the premiership (but without the crocodiles or the big knife).
He’s been accused in parliament and in the blogosphere of being a sexist misogynist, but criticism in the mainstream media has been less fierce. The influential Murdoch press has taken a vocal pro-Abbott stance.
His "larrikin" (Aussie for “blokey” or rowdy) streak has played well to the masses.
Nicknamed the "Mad Monk," Abbott’s ascendency has been well-managed, but not without luck, his time in opposition coinciding with the implosion of the ruling Labor Party.
In the circus that is Australian politics, the current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was elected to the top job in 2007, only to be ousted by his party three years later and replaced by Julia Gillard, the country’s first female leader.
A narrow election victory and a brutal internal war followed, with Rudd destabilizing the Labor Party from within, and Abbott and a hostile press hounding Gillard from the sidelines. (She once told Obama: "You think it's tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister.")
It was only a matter of time before Labor dumped Gillard and restored Rudd to power in the hope of saving face at the ballot box.
But the polls suggest Rudd’s resurrection has been in vain.
This month, Australia will take over the rotating UN Security Council presidency. That event may coincide with the formation of a government that promises to slash foreign aid, ignore the push for gay marriage (Abbott describes it as a “fashion”), repeal carbon taxes, build roads at the expense of rail, and ask UNESCO to remove part of a World Heritage Area from its protected list.
What to do about refugees — largely Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian, arriving via Indonesia — has been a hot and divisive issue, blown way out of proportion considering the minuscule numbers involved. Out of the millions of people seeking refuge worldwide, Australia officially has space for just 13,700 humanitarian refugees. Fewer than 60,000 others apply at Australian ports for asylum, most of them arriving by plane.
Since 2001, at least 1,400 people have drowned trying to make it to Australia by boat; Abbott plans to use the Navy to turn back these “illegals.” He promises to “stop the boats” by buying up Indonesian fishing vessels so they can’t be used for people-smuggling. The Rudd government labeled that plan "crazy" — there are more than 750,000 Indonesian fishing boats. Indonesia, Abbott’s foreign affairs spokesperson said, had been “informed” about the plan, though not consulted.
For many Australians, though, the core election issue is the economy — one they have been told is a mess that needs fixing. Except it’s not a mess and there’s not a lot to fix, something Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, was at pains to point out in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article.
Australia was one of few OECD economies to make it through the global economic crisis unscathed. The banks survived, as did the housing market. Australia, in fact, has had a staggering 20 consecutive years of GDP growth.
Yet Abbott has conducted a successful scare campaign based on an economy that isn’t broken but needs fixing, and “illegal” refugees who he says are flooding the country’s borders.
When President Obama calls to congratulate Tony Abbott, he will be talking to the leader of a more inward-looking country, one less inclined to engage with the world, one that may eventually become as politically remote as it is geographically.
Let’s just hope no one mentions Michelle’s sex appeal.
Lynette Eyb is an Australian journalist currently based in France. She writes about current affairs, health, and social issues. Prior to moving to France, she edited a London-based magazine for Australians.