Why we’re stuck with Tony Abbott

FIVE years ago, a young Melbourne woman landed in Manly hoping to make a statement on election day 2013, as the country contemplated voting in local member Tony Abbott as the next prime minister.

Expecting to tap into anti-Tony sentiment, like she had in other parts of the country, she turned up to a local polling booth with a pair of large knitted underpants mocking his infamous budgie smugglers.

But she soon found, as others have, this is an area that loves their local member.

Casey Jenkins was asked to remove two knitted banners she had made, one of them in the shape of a pair of red budgie smugglers and the other calling him a "misogynist knitwit", after offending locals.

"The reaction has probably been less warm than in other places I've been to," she told the Manly Daily in 2013.

"It's been interesting to talk to some of his supporters, in other areas people say they would vote for Abbott (as PM) because there was no alternative, but here people say he is a good bloke."

Casey Jenkins with a budgie smuggler banner she made ahead of the 2013 federal election.
Casey Jenkins with a budgie smuggler banner she made ahead of the 2013 federal election.

Mr Abbott's electorate of Warringah in Sydney's northern beaches, also known as the "insular peninsula", is a world away from the treacherous corridors of Canberra.

While Mr Abbott's fondness for donning a pair of budgie smugglers sees him mocked around the country, locally he is respected for his community service, in particular his volunteering at the surf club and with the rural fire service.

It's this rusted on, local support that enables Mr Abbott to stay in parliament, even after losing the prime ministership to Malcolm Turnbull.

But after being implicated in this month's ugly leadership spill, there are signs this could be changing.

Some locals who have voted for Mr Abbott in the past could barely hide their anger at their MP's involvement in last week's chaotic events and told news.com.au they didn't want to vote for him again.

"His name is mud at the moment … I voted for him but never again," one Manly woman told news.com.au yesterday.

"I felt Malcolm was doing the best he could and the impact on (former foreign minister) Julie Bishop too, was unbelievable. I'm almost embarrassed to be Australian at the moment."

The woman, who has lived in the northern beaches for about 30 years, said Mr Abbott was "totally out of touch".

"He's just pure ego. He's supposed to be governing the country but it's just appalling behaviour and vengeance.

"I've got no respect for Tony Abbott at all."

Describing herself as a swing voter, she said she would now have difficulty voting at the next election.

Another Manly resident said he was "absolutely" reconsidering his vote and thought other locals were also getting tired of Mr Abbott.

"He is just tired in the teeth and hanging around, I don't know what for," he said. "He just seems to be stirring the pot rather than genuinely being of service as a local member."

Tony Abbott’s volunteering at the local surf club has made him popular but attitudes appear to be changing.
Tony Abbott’s volunteering at the local surf club has made him popular but attitudes appear to be changing.

The spill also put off another Manly resident of 10 years, who said he wouldn't vote for Mr Abbott again. He said: "I don't like the action he takes in parliament."

A Fairlight woman, who's lived in the area for four years, said she had always voted for the Liberal Party but would not vote for Mr Abbott again.

"I think he's the same as any other politician, they don't stand true to their word," she said.

A second Fairlight woman, a resident for 13 years, was also determined to change her vote.

"There was a conspiracy last week and it was awful," she said.

But other locals disagreed, saying Mr Abbott continued to have their full support.

One Manly resident said he thought about 80 per cent of his circle of family and friends still backed Mr Abbott.

"He's the only local support we've got there (in Canberra) and he seems dedicated," he said.

He said Mr Abbott was not just going to relinquish his seat, unlike Mr Turnbull.

A Collaroy Plateau man, who's lived in the northern beaches for about 30 years, was also standing by Mr Abbott.

"He's good for our community, our parliament and our traditional values in Australia."

Neighbouring Liberal MP Jason Falinski said while there were always people who didn't like Mr Abbott, he still enjoyed support.

"Among working people and retirees, mums, dads and families, the message I get is they like Tony and they like his involvement in the community, what he's done in the community and they don't see any better option in front of them," he told news.com.au.

He said Mr Abbott had been endorsed as the Liberal candidate for the next election and would remain in the position until he decided it was time to go.

"My impression, for what it's worth, is that people on the northern beaches are pretty upset about what happened last week but I don't think, in our area, there is any pointed criticism of Tony Abbott," he said. "I think he remains popular."

Tony Abbott having a laugh with NSW Liberal MP for Wakehurst Brad Hazzard and a friend, at the launch of his campaign in 2016. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian
Tony Abbott having a laugh with NSW Liberal MP for Wakehurst Brad Hazzard and a friend, at the launch of his campaign in 2016. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian

That's certainly the opinion of Craig Susans, deputy president and life member of the Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club. He got to know Mr Abbott more than 14 years ago when the MP's daughters joined Nippers and later became a patrolling member himself.

"I think most people really don't care what happens (in Canberra). As long as the Government is doing its best to look after them, they are happy with what rolls along," Mr Susans told news.com.au.

"He's very personable, very friendly and chats about stuff in general," Mr Susans said of Mr Abbott. "He genuinely wants to be involved in the club and gets enjoyment of out it. I think it takes his mind off the crap in Canberra."

Mr Susans said he hadn't noticed any shift in attitude towards Mr Abbott after last week's spill, and believes most people support his decision to stay on as the local MP.

"I think they do because he's a good member. We don't need to go through the process of selecting someone else. He's doing a good job, why replace him?

"Sadly, I think it's just part of politics," Mr Susans said of last week's leadership spill.

"It sells papers … it's a bit of a sad indictment on the place but that's just life."

Mr Susans likened Mr Abbott to two other popular local MPs, former Manly State Liberal MP Mike Baird, who was also a club member, and his successor James Griffin.

"They just fit in," he said. "There is no pretentiousness to them, they are just normal people who live in the area. I think that's why people like him (Mr Abbott) and the others I mentioned."

He said Mr Abbott prefers to be treated as a member of the club and not a VIP.

"At the awards night, he'll sit at a table with his patrol members, he doesn't want to sit with the VIPs, he just wants to be blend in and be a normal person," Mr Susans said.

Despite pressure from other Liberal MPs, Mr Abbott has resisted calls for him to retire.

Queensland Liberal MP Andrew Laming told ABC radio on Saturday: "I think he'll retire at the next election … I'd encourage him to."

Fellow Queensland MP Warren Entsch also said Mr Abbott's time was up.

"I think his mission is accomplished; he has gotten rid of his nemesis," he told News Corp.

"Everything there was purely about revenge."

But Mr Abbott has made it clear that he's not going anywhere and he has accepted a job as special envoy on indigenous affairs.

When asked whether he was doing the right thing by the Liberal Party and his local constituents in staying in parliament, Mr Abbott's office was not able to provide a comment to news.com.au before deadline but did provide a letter that was sent to constituents acknowledging the angst around the leadership spill.

In the letter Mr Abbott thanked people for getting in touch about their concerns following the events in Canberra and said people never liked it when their elected representatives seemed to be fighting among themselves rather than governing the country.

"I'm sorry that, for a week, we made an unseemly spectacle of ourselves," Mr Abbott said. "Still, I'm confident that the government will now unite under the Prime Minister and believe there will be some policy refinements to give us a better chance of winning the next election."

Mr Abbott said he was immensely encouraged at the new roles for Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge to get power prices down and improve congestion.

"I appreciate that not everyone shared my worries about the so-called National Energy Guarantee," he said.

"On the evidence so far, though, even more intermittent renewable power and even higher emissions reduction targets were just going to put prices up further and send more jobs offshore.

"The government ultimately dropped the policy in response to multiple objections raised in the party room, which rather vindicates my concerns."

Mr Abbott said what was a "policy issue only" became a leadership one because the former prime minister called an "unexpected and unnecessary spill" in the party room on August 22.

"This is what drove seven cabinet ministers to resign in the subsequent 48 hours and that, in turn, made the further vote necessary which ultimately made Scott Morrison our new leader," Mr Abbott said.

"As you can appreciate, I abhor a revolving door prime ministership. In this case, regrettably, the incumbent himself lit the fuse that led to change.

"In any event, I have pledged full support for PM Morrison and will do everything I can to help.

"In this electorate, the only way to prevent a Labor government, if that's what you want, is to keep me as your local MP."

Tony Abbott says the only way to prevent a Labor government is by Warringah voters keeping him as the local MP. Picture: Gary Ramage
Tony Abbott says the only way to prevent a Labor government is by Warringah voters keeping him as the local MP. Picture: Gary Ramage

Certainly Mr Abbott's unwillingness to retire doesn't appear to be motivated by money.

If he left parliament, Mr Abbott would get a pension of around $300,000 a year, based on his length of service and the positions he has held, according to Fairfax.

As a backbencher he was getting $207,080. While it's not clear whether his new role as envoy will involve a pay bump, a Cabinet minister gets about $357,213 and up to $388,275 for the treasurer. The prime minister gets $538,000.

When Mr Turnbull announced he was going to resign, Mr Abbott even took a shot at him, telling radio station 6PR: "I always suspected that the instant he didn't have the top job he'd want to go".

During his last speech as prime minister on Friday, Mr Turnbull said he thought he believed prime ministers were best out of the parliament.

"I don't think there's much evidence to suggest that conclusion … is not correct," he said.

Many Australians surveying the destruction wrecked by last week's events would agree with Mr Turnbull. Disgust with the Liberal Party's actions could even see Mr Turnbull's seat of Wentworth fall to Labor and appears to have reduced their chances of winning the next election, if recent polls are any guide.

But even if there is a backlash against the Liberal Party, the numbers show Mr Abbott is unlikely to feel the wrath of public opinion in his own electorate, unlike his mentor John Howard, who was voted out of his seat of Bennelong in 2007.

The Liberal first preference vote in Warringah has not dropped below 50 per cent since 1983.

ABC election analyst Antony Green said this made it very unlikely a challenger could wrest the seat away from Mr Abbott. Ahead of the 2016 election when Australian Idol host James Mathison stood as an independent, Mr Green said: "Unless Mathison or any other candidate has a strategy to take votes from the Liberal Party rather than Labor and the Greens, then any challenge to the Liberal grip on Warringah is doomed to fail."

Mr Abbott is unlikely to be voted out. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian
Mr Abbott is unlikely to be voted out. Picture: Adam Yip/ The Australian

The two-party preferred vote in 2016 saw Mr Abbott retain the seat on a vote of 61 per cent, compared to the Greens candidate on 38 per cent.

Labor's primary vote was just 14 per cent, The Greens was 12 per cent and Mr Mathison got 11 per cent.

But there was a 9 per cent swing away from Mr Abbott and rivals insist there's growing appetite for change.

Labor's candidate Dean Harris told the Manly Daily in July that recent polling of 756 voters in the electorate showed only 40 per cent of voters agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that former prime minister Mr Abbott, "represents my views and what's important to me".

Mr Harris, director of a marketing and consultancy firm, said the 150 people who turned up for his launch were a "wonderful demonstration of the desire for change in Warringah at the next federal election".

Greens candidate Kristyn Glanville said there was a real frustration that Mr Abbott was not representing the more moderate attitudes of people who vote for the Liberal Party.

"I think the results of the same-sex marriage survey provide concrete evidence of the difference between what the people of Warringah believe, their views on political issues, and the different views of Tony Abbott," she told news.com.au.

Mr Abbott was a prominent No campaigner but 75 per cent of people in Warringah voted Yes to legalise same-sex marriage, the fourth highest vote in Australia.

Ms Glanville said locals had also been frustrated about Mr Abbott's views on renewables and his obstruction of policy.

"I think their view is that there is a consensus among the scientific community that climate change exists and that we should do something about it," she said. "Tony doesn't seem to be interested in contributing to what that policy response would look like."

Mr Abbott, who is due to turn 61 in November, told 2GB Radio on Monday that he had no intention of retiring.

"I regard myself as a young man," he said. "I still think I have a lot of public life left in me. I'm determined to make the most of it."



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