Aus' 'Mad Monk' changes habits

2010-08-19 11:20

Sydney - Australia's conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has successfully tempered his image as a gaffe-prone "Mad Monk" to draw within sight of a remarkable election win on Saturday.

The London-born Rhodes Scholar and Oxford boxing blue was rank outsider for the prime ministership when he surprisingly became Liberal Party leader in December, and was firmly behind even when campaigning started five weeks ago.

However, the straight-talking family man has put aside his reputation for foul-mouthed howlers and posing in his swimming trunks, in a well-orchestrated campaign which has left Labour's three-year government hanging in the balance.

Abbott, a renowned fitness fanatic, has started most days of his campaign in lycra as he dons helmet and shorts for pre-dawn bike rides.

But after symbolically barbecuing a pair of red Speedos in late June, Abbott has morphed from figure of fun to sober statesman, contrasting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard's pre-poll stumbles.

Abbott, 52, promises a tough line on asylum-seekers and a firm hand on the economy, and has delighted in taunting Labour over June's panicked ousting of elected prime minister Kevin Rudd - for which he can take some credit.

Political row

A survey this week put Abbott only four percentage points behind Labor, a margin which would have been unthinkable in December when he rose to power by one vote in a party row over Rudd's emissions trading laws, which he opposed.

The result - which made him the opposition's third leader since John Howard lost power in 2007 - was greeted with "a roar of gobsmacked silence" in Canberra, The Sydney Morning Herald said at the time.

"I acknowledge that at times, I have stuffed up," he said at his victory press conference, as his deputy Julie Bishop mouthed, "That's true."

Abbott's reputation as a maverick was prodigious. Given the "Mad Monk" nickname because of his aborted training as a Catholic priest, the Sydneysider was known as a colourful, if likeable, rogue.

He had 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.

Abbott also snapped "That's bullshit!" when, as health minister under Howard, he was rebuked for turning up late to a televised debate. And he shrugged off a political row by telling a TV presenter "Shit happens".

As opposition leader, he drew guffaws after admitting to an interviewer that he doesn't always tell the truth, and has battled frequent reminders of his famous comment that climate change science was "crap".

Sensationally dumped

However, these peccadilloes were overlooked by voters as Abbott traded on Rudd's failed emissions scheme and planned new mining tax to reel in the prime minister in opinion polls, before he was sensationally dumped by his own party.

Anthony John Abbott was born in London in 1957 before his parents moved to Australia. He attended the University of Sydney, where he famously won a fist fight with party colleague Joe Hockey, before taking up his Oxford scholarship.

He briefly trained as a Catholic priest before becoming a journalist and then pursuing a career in politics, entering parliament in 1994 and rising to health minister.

Abbott, a father of three daughters with his wife, Margaret, is a volunteer firefighter and a surf lifesaver at Sydney's Queenscliff beach, where he was memorably snapped in his swimming trunks and bathing cap.