Tony Abbott’s scramble to save his job
EVERYWHERE you look on Sydney's northern beaches, Tony Abbott is campaigning.
Heck, on Tuesday morning he was standing in the middle of Spit Road during peak hour, waving at drivers.
Why is Mr Abbott suddenly such an ubiquitous presence? Because for the first time in his political career, he is genuinely at risk of losing his own seat.
Barrister and former Olympian Zali Steggall, who's running as an independent, is a real threat to the man who has held Warringah with ease at every federal election since 1994.
She says locals are telling her they've never seen Mr Abbott spend so much time in his own electorate - and it's "absolutely" a sign that he's worried.
It's worth noting, Mr Abbott's office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
"People know that his attention has been elsewhere, he hasn't been focused on the local areas," Ms Steggall told news.com.au.
"There are local issues that have really not been addressed, that haven't had any love from our federal member."
There are reasons for that alleged neglect. Mr Abbott joined the Howard government's ministry in 1998 and continued to play a senior role at a national level until he was ejected from the Liberal leadership in 2015.
He had a bit on his plate.
But now Mr Abbott is all about local issues. He is talking to voters about big infrastructure projects, like the Northern Beaches Tunnel, and smaller problems like the quality of the toilets at Manly Life Saving Club.
"He's had plenty of time to do all that. Voters don't have a sense of trust that he's actually going to carry out these promises," Ms Steggall said.
Asked which policy issues Warringah voters cared about most, Ms Steggall nominated climate change, the environment, traffic and congestion.
But she believes something else is gnawing at them.
"The main issue for locals is that they haven't felt represented. After 25 years of the same person, there is a sense that it's time for new representation," she said.
"I do think his views are very much out of step with the electorate."
Ms Steggall cited Mr Abbott's "very symbolic" reaction to the same-sex marriage vote.
The former prime minister campaigned against same-sex marriage, but 75 per cent of his constituents voted yes - the fourth-highest total of any electorate in the country.
When parliament legalised same-sex marriage soon afterwards, Mr Abbott did not vote yes or no but simply left the chamber.
"It just really highlighted how out of touch he has become," Ms Steggall said.
"If it had been a conscience vote in parliament, he could have done his own thing. But the minute he pushed for a plebiscite there was a duty to represent his electorate's view.
"When it came time to vote he just walked out of parliament. That is so disrespectful towards the views of the electorate."
Mr Abbott has never failed to a win a majority of the primary vote in Warringah. However, there have long been signs of an asymmetry between some of his more conservative social views and the opinions of his constituents.
In 1999, long before the same-sex marriage debate, Mr Abbott was on the winning side as the referendum on establishing an Australian republic failed. But while he argued in favour of keeping the monarchy, Warringah once again voted the other way.
So what's the truth? Has Mr Abbott always been slightly more conservative than his electorate, or have the voters of Warringah changed and gradually drifted away from him during his two-and-a-half decades in parliament?
"It's hard to say," Ms Steggall said.
"He has been very conservative with his views from the start. But he has been part of governments that have not always been as conservative as him.
"The electorate has changed to an extent, I mean the average age is 38. For every retiree selling a house, there is a young family moving in. And young families care about the environment they're bringing their kids up in."
The former prime minister, for his part, believes Ms Steggall is not the Liberal-leaning independent she claims to be.
"Zali claims to be a 'moderate'. What a joke! On her own admission, she's never voted Liberal in her life at a federal election, and thinks that Labor's climate change policies don't go far enough. Vote Steggall, get Shorten!" Mr Abbott tweeted on Tuesday.
"Howard was too right wing for her. Even Turnbull was too right wing for her," he told readers of The Manly Daily during a live Q&A yesterday.
Those comments echo his criticism of other independents, such as Kerryn Phelps, who now occupy traditional Liberal seats.
Ms Steggall said she saw that line of attack coming.
"He was always going to, I didn't expect anything less," she said.
"The reality is I'm a moderate and an independent, and it's really that simple."
She said Mr Abbott was "causing his own downfall" and alienating moderate voters with his "baffling" rhetoric.
"How he feels, how the conservatives feel, is that unless you're far right like him, you must be a lefty. There is this complete abandonment of the moderate middle ground.
"I think what they overlook is the base of support and all the moderate voters who have been left without anyone to represent them.
"And I think that's why you see this rise of independents. Rather than looking at why they lost the votes, they're turning around and attacking the centre."
Ms Steggall said she was not intimidated by the prospect of taking on a former prime minister, despite Mr Abbott's reputation as a formidable campaigner.
"I respect the challenge ahead. I know he's a wily politician," she said.
"I have no illusions that they will go low. There's no doubt about it. They already are.
"It's a smart electorate, and I don't think this electorate will be fooled by that kind of campaign."