CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s “unelectable” and gaffe-prone political leader, Tony Abbott, confounded critics Saturday by becoming the country’s latest prime minister, leading the opposition to a sweeping election victory and ending six years of Labor Party rule.
Abbott, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition, rode a wave of public bitterness over a hated carbon emissions tax, worries about a flagging economy and frustration over government infighting to win the election.
The result was a stunning turnaround for Abbott, a 55-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian and Rhodes scholar who has never been particularly popular and was once dubbed unelectable by opponents and some of his own supporters.
He emerged victorious thanks, in large part, to the frustration of a country fed up with Labor and its once-popular leader Kevin Rudd, who had engaged in a years-long power struggle with his former deputy, Julia Gillard. Gillard, who became the nation’s first female prime minister after ousting Rudd in a party vote in 2010, ended up losing her job to Rudd three years later in a similar internal party coup.
With more than 90 percent of votes counted, official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed the Liberals ahead 53 percent to Labor’s 47 percent. The coalition was on track to win 91 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, and Labor 54.
For a range of reasons, Abbott had been dismissed by many critics as not being prime minister material.
He came under fire during the campaign over an interview in which he drew a distinction between what he sometimes says “in the heat of discussion” and “an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark.”
In the latest campaign, he was criticized for listing a female candidate’s “sex appeal” as a political asset, then defending himself by calling it a “charming compliment.” In another incident, he accidentally drew laughter during a speech by saying that no one is the “suppository” of all wisdom, when he apparently meant to say “repository.”
Abbott’s approval ratings recently improved in polls, but he remains relatively unpopular, particularly among women voters.
“All those ridiculous people who said he was unelectable should understand how foolish they were to underestimate him,” former conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who promoted Abbott to his Cabinet during an 11-year reign, told Seven Network television Saturday.
Abbott was regarded as a competent minister. But his aggressive politics, social conservatism and knack for igniting controversy raised questions about his suitability as a potential national leader. He was elected party leader by his Liberal Party colleagues in late 2009 by a single-vote majority.