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The marathon man has a hard race ahead

Tony Abbott celebrated his win with an early Sunday morning bike ride. AAP/Paul Miller

As Tony Abbott drew ever closer to the prime ministership towards the end of the campaign, he mused about the nature of the job.

“The prime minister is probably a little more than first amongst equals, but any prime minister that tries to micromanage portfolios is going to come unstuck,” he told The Conversation.

“A, it is impossible to do it with complex modern government and B, your colleagues will deeply resent it. Most of the time you’ve got to allow colleagues to run their portfolios; it would only be if there was a serious problem that you would yourself get deeply involved.”

On the last day of the campaign, he was asked whether he would continue his “combative” leadership style.

“The big difference between a prime minister and an opposition leader is that an opposition leader inevitably is the leader of a tribe”, he said. “A prime minister has to be the leader of a nation.”

Most prime ministers come to the job as relatively unknown quantities; a few arrive as perceived known quantities and then behave in either unexpected ways or according to type.

John Howard grew into successfully handling the job. As did Robert Menzies, when he was given a second go. Bob Hawke and John Gorton both had larrikin backgrounds: Hawke used and transcended that to become one of modern Australia’s best leaders; Gorton’s ill-discipline helped undo him. Kevin Rudd Mark 1 held great promise but a close scrutiny of his past pointed to the flaws he failed to overcome.

Abbott’s opponents (as well as commentators and some colleagues) have always underestimated the extent to which he’s capable of change and growth. When he became opposition leader in late 2009 he was written off as the “mad monk”, the bovver boy who wouldn’t be able to cut it.

From then until the election campaign just finished, this misreading of Abbott has been fatal for Labor.

In 2009, he seized immediately on the carbon price – which had brought him to the leadership after the opposition imploded over it – and used it as a battering ram, first against Rudd and then against Julia Gillard (helped immensely when it could be linked to her broken “no carbon tax under a government I lead” promise). There was a cost in being “relentlessly negative”, as Labor described him, but the benefits outweighed it.

Abbott overcame competitors on his own side of politics as well as his enemies on the other side in part by sheer slog. Think of tortoise V hare, sprinter V marathon runner, the dogged honours student V the brilliant but less focused top of the class.

Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd were hares and sprinters, sprinkled with attractive glitter. Abbott is glitter-free. But finishing a 14-hour triathlon soon after becoming opposition leader and keeping up during a strenuous workout with troops during the campaign are metaphors for his political stamina.

This helps give him a relatively even temperament, though in the past he has sometimes lapsed spectacularly when things have gone wrong. In the 2007 campaign he cast aspersions on the dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton. After that election defeat he went into a deep funk (and wrote Battlelines as therapy). In the early days of the Howard government, he was impatient because he thought his advance too slow; he could be intolerant of those on his own side with whom he disagreed politically. He and then education minister Amanda Vanstone had a testy relationship when he was a parliamentary secretary in her portfolio.

Like everyone, Abbott is product of his past, distant and recent. Son of a dentist, born into a comfortable middle class home, adored son in a family with three girls, Abbott was on the wild side at university, and loutish to his opponents in student politics.

The maturing Abbott was deeply influenced by his Catholicism, including his period in a seminary and, to a lesser extent, by his time at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

Abbott will always be very Catholic. His intellectual acquaintance with Cardinal Newman instilled a respect for the value of education for its own sake. The views of B.A. Santamaria, whose dedicated disciple he became, have entered the DNA. They can be seen in his opposition, in the Howard cabinet, to the harsher aspects of WorkChoices. His commitment to indigenous advancement may partly come from his Catholic values (as well as the influence of indigenous leader Noel Pearson).

His Catholicism led to his bruising and unsuccessful battle as health minister to keep control of the importation of the abortion drug RU486.

His religion will continue to influence him, but he has been forced to understand the boundary between one’s own views on moral questions and the wider responsibility of a leader in a secular society. Personal experience also tempers his moral outlook; he remains opposed to same sex marriage but gained greater understanding after sister Christine went from a conventional marriage to a gay relationship.

As a former cabinet minister Abbott has had the benefit of a bird’s eye view of how the prime ministerial job is done. He’s always been close to Howard, who has sufficient broadmindedness to like both Abbott and Turnbull. In government sometimes an impatient, thrusting Abbott tried the patience of his boss. But Howard has been example and mentor (and active on-the-ground campaigner for him in this election).

Abbott brings a normally consultative style (there have been exceptions, as when he produced his unpopular paid parental leave scheme and then sought absolution from the party room) and an ability to get on with colleagues. He has a deep streak of loyalty, especially to friends.

These are strong qualities but there can be downsides. He can fall under the sway of people, sometimes being too ready to rely on one strand of advice that has impressed him. He might have been a misogynist in his youth, but in recent years some colleagues lament he can be excessively influenced by strong women, the most recent being his chief of staff Peta Credlin. He can take too much notice of doctrinaire friends outside parliament.

During his prime ministership, occasions are likely to arise when a minister or staffer has done done something wrong or untenable, and Abbott will have to choose between being loyal or opting for propriety or pragmatism.

On policy, he is neither highly ideological nor very “right wing”. He is more of a traditional conservative, in the sense of not wanting to change everything. His strong stand on moral issues has sometimes led to his being miscast in other areas. Howard was a crusader on industrial relations; Abbott (who served as workplace minister) is not. Nor is he a dedicated economic rationalist, like, for example, former senator Nick Minchin.

He is, in fact, quite centrist on mainstream policy. He is also capable to changing his views for reasons of conviction or convenience.

As he famously once told Turnbull, he was a political “weathervane” on climate change. In his interview with The Conversation he said he had changed his opinion on federalism. Under Howard he wanted the federal government to take over responsibility for the hospitals; in his 2009 Battlelines he urged a referendum to rewrite federal-state responsibilities, to the great disadvantage of the states. Now, with new circumstances and needing to have to work with the states, he’s into co-operative federalism.

His conversion from an opponent of paid parental leave to an ardent advocate appears a mix of conviction and the desire to have a big idea of his own.

In foreign policy he is a conventional modern conservative, pro American but totally aware of the centrality of Asia for Australia’s future. He’s little moved by the fact that Australia has just become president of the United Nations Security Council. But, while a supporter of the Iraq war, he has learned from it; during the campaign he questioned the wisdom of a military strike against Syria.

Abbott is likely to approach the prime ministership carefully.

He makes much of pledging not to break promises. Of course he will – as any PM has to, when circumstances change. But he’ll be careful about trying to keep faith – because that’s his way (he was genuinely troubled when cabinet colleagues forced him to go back on a health commitment after the 2004 election) and because, more importantly, he’s seen (and exploited) what’s happened when Gillard broke a core promise.

He faces some potentially tricky challenges both internally and externally. One could be managing a party room where many will have firm views about a Liberal government “making a difference” (not repeating the Fraser government experience, which they regard as a squandered opportunity). Another will be the uncertain economy - how well an Abbott government copes with this will be central to its longevity beyond a first term. A third might be the consequences of his calculated but crazy brave commitment to a double dissolution if he couldn’t get his way on the repeal of the carbon tax.

With a strong majority Abbott won’t in these coming months be on the hustings, as he was during the hung parliament. But to what extent he can set terms for dealing with the media, which has institutionally switched to an around-the-clock cycle, remains an open question. It will also be interesting to watch the Murdoch media, which was on a mission against Rudd in these last weeks; it may regard Abbott as its own and try to bend him to its will.

Though it sounds odd to say so, we may not see the “real” prime minister Abbott for quite a while, not because he’s hiding but because he will be evolving.

Abbott says he will set up multiple inquiries – into taxation, federal-state relations, northern Australia, child care and industrial relations (the latter two done by the Productivity Commission). These will be fundamental to how his government sets itself up for the longer term. Many people, including colleagues will be attempting to get in his ear about what should be done.

The extent to which he can select and absorb the best advice while being his own man, the balances he strikes, and his judgement about fundamental directions for change and reform will be key measuring sticks for his prime ministership.

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