Abbott: Mad Monk of Australia

July 17, 2010 12:00 am

, SYDNEY, Jul 17 – Australia\’s Speedos-loving, gaffe-prone conservative leader Tony Abbott may be known as the "Mad Monk", but his earthy personality may see the one-time trainee priest win power.

Abbott, a Catholic, monarchist family man, faces off against the Labor Party\’s unwed, childless, atheist, career woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard in national elections on August 21.

The straight-talking Abbott was a rank outsider for the opposition leadership but pulled off a major shock last December when he won by just one vote to take over the flailing Liberal/National party coalition.

His ascension — which made him the opposition\’s third leader since John Howard lost government two years earlier — was greeted with "a roar of gobsmacked silence" in Canberra, The Sydney Morning Herald said at the time.

But he has performed strongly in opinion polls since then, sufficiently rattling the ruling Labor Party that it dumped former prime minister Kevin Rudd in favour of Gillard in June.

Abbott, a former cabinet minister in the Howard government, has relished the role; helping bring down the government\’s planned carbon trading scheme designed to combat climate change and attacking a 40 percent mining tax.

But he has not been without his critics who accused him of neglecting serious policy work for exercise, particularly after he spent nine days on a 1,000 kilometre (620 mile) Melbourne to Sydney charity bike ride.

Often appearing in newspapers in "budgie smuggler" swimming trunks or clinging lycra, Abbott entered an ironman race in March, completing a 3.8 kilometre ocean swim, 180 kilometre bike ride and 42 kilometre run in under 14 hours.

But his mouth has also got him in trouble, notably when he admitted politicians don\’t always tell the truth, saying that the statements that should be "taken absolutely as gospel truth" were "those carefully prepared, scripted remarks."

"All of us, when we\’re in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that go a little bit further," he told the ABC.

The former student boxer has also had to shrug off earlier comments that climate-change science was "crap", as "a bit of hyperbole".

After winning the opposition leadership position, the super-fit ex-Rhodes Scholar asked the public to give him a clean slate.

"I acknowledge that at times, I have stuffed up," he said, as his deputy Julie Bishop mouthed, "That\’s true."

Abbott has frequently been caught swearing in front of the cameras, once accusing Gillard, then deputy prime minister, of wearing a "shit-eating grin" and offering only a qualified apology afterwards.

He is also remembered for snapping "That\’s bullshit!" when, as health minister, he was rebuked for turning up late to a debate, and for shrugging off a political row by telling a TV presenter "Shit happens".

However, Abbott wins favour for his honesty and entertainment value.

In his first parliamentary appearance as opposition chief Abbott joked that he would now have to stop "flirting" with Gillard and he has since acknowledged there would be a "wow factor" associated with Australia\’s first woman PM.

"I\’m the father of three daughters, of course I\’m excited about the fact," he said. "This proves that no job is barred to anyone."

Anthony John Abbott was born in London before his parents moved to Australia. He went to the University of Sydney, where he famously won a fist fight with Liberal Party colleague Joe Hockey, before taking up his Oxford scholarship.

Abbott briefly trained as a Catholic priest — earning the "Mad Monk" nickname — before becoming a journalist and then pursuing a career in politics, entering parliament in 1994 and rising to health minister under Howard.

If elected, he has promised to return the budget to surplus within three years, legislate for six months\’ paid parental leave and introduce stricter border controls.


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