CANBERRA – Australia’s Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott will not be sworn in until next week, but he has already stamped a markedly different style on government, fostering an air of studious, steady calm.
That stands in stark contrast to the “chaos” he liked to accuse his Labor predecessors of fomenting as almost hourly sound bites, lengthy press conferences and briefings were cranked out in an effort to control the 24-hour news cycle.
Abbott, once dubbed the “Mad Monk” and branded an unelectable misogynist, has spent the week since his election victory largely out of the media glare, trying to deliver on a pledge to bring back “adult government.”
When he has appeared, the image has been carefully controlled — meeting uniformed defense chiefs, looking at hefty tomes with senior civil servants, talking with the U.S. ambassador — to cultivate an air of seriousness. It is very much a new style for the man himself, and few saw it coming.
“It’s taken me by surprise,” admitted Australian National University politics professor John Uhr, describing Abbott’s normal style in opposition as “wildly frenetic, sometimes cagey, but always in your face.”
The election campaign saw Liberal leader Abbott metamorphose into “a model of discipline,” particularly for “someone who did not enjoy a good reputation,” Uhr said.
Known as a straight-talking political hit man, Abbott limited his trademark verbal stumbles to comments about a female candidate’s “sex appeal” and a simplistic description of the Syria conflict as “baddies versus baddies.”
Uhr noted that the new prime minister was now showing “remarkable seriousness.”
“During the last few days of the campaign, he went slow,” he said, speculating the new pose could be contrived by Abbott himself, who has experience as a journalist and could well have decided on “a new art.”
Uhr thought it too early to say if the new image will endure or simply masks a lack of substance, but he certainly had his doubts. “The substance is combustible,” said Uhr, referring to Abbott’s explosive history, and past comments including a dismissal of the evidence for climate change as “absolute crap.”
The 55-year-old Abbott has not held a single press conference this week and has made only fleeting public appearances and brief statements.
The media blitzes beloved of outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — right up to and including his rambling defeat speech — have been banished.
A week after the election, the full Cabinet is still under wraps, and a date for next week’s swearing-in has not been finalized.
Abbott was unanimously endorsed as party leader on Friday and used the opportunity to reinforce the new message.
“We will now move purposely, calmly, methodically to deliver on our election commitments,” he told his Liberal supporters.
He set an earnest tone in his sole speech since victory last Saturday night, promising “a government that says what it means and means what it says.
“A government of no surprises and no excuses . . . and a government that accepts that it will be judged more by its deeds than by its mere words.”
Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister from 1996 to 2007 and a fellow Liberal, said Abbott’s premiership would be low-profile. “Tony Abbott will be a low-profile PM. All that Twitter, Facebook, daily press conference stuff will go. Ministers will do most of the talking. The prime minister will think, read and plan.”
Terry Barnes, former senior policy adviser to Abbott when he was health minister, insisted it is the real person who has come through since the campaign. “The public glimpsed an intelligent, well-read, self-aware and thoughtful man, who resists the hype and adulation that invariably surrounds political leaders,” Barnes wrote on ABC’s Drum analysis forum.
“He finally tore up the caricature of conservative Catholic zealot that his opponents and detractors have made for him.”