Abbott loses 'Mad Monk' image as office beckons

Abbott loses 'Mad Monk' image as office beckons

SYDNEY - The frontrunner to be Australia's next prime minister has ditched his "Mad Monk" tag and softened his macho image to turn around his conservative party's fortunes and steer them towards likely victory in Saturday's election.

Tony Abbott, a former trainee Catholic priest, boxing enthusiast and monarchist, has in the past been known as a political hard man of the Liberal Party, unafraid of speaking his mind and occasionally tripping up on a gaffe.

His election campaign has not been immune to verbal stumbles - with his comments about one of his female candidate's "sex appeal" causing concern, along with his description of the conflict in Syria as "baddies versus baddies".

But the 55-year-old opposition leader, singled out by former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard as sexist in a fierce parliamentary tirade against misogyny, has rebuilt his image and it appears to have paid dividends.

"I've learnt that the best leaders are leaders who reach out to everyone and appreciate that if you are the PM of this country, you've got to be a PM for everyone, not just your side," he told reporters on Saturday, as he sharpens a more statesmanlike image.

He has appeared regularly with his wife and three young adult daughters, spoken of his closeness to his gay sister and even admitted to being a fan of the British period drama "Downton Abbey".

"I've certainly said some things which I wouldn't say now," Abbott told the 60 Minutes television programme earlier this year of comments he made over the course of his time in public life, beginning in student politics.

"I've said some things which I believed then, which I don't believe now. Because like everyone who has had a long time in public life, in particular, I've changed, and I'd like to think that I've grown."

Abbott had an unlucky leadership run in 2010 when the election resulted in a hung parliament, his Liberal/National coalition losing only when three independents and a Greens MP backed his Labor rival Gillard to give her a majority.

Yet it represented a remarkable turnaround from the previous vote just three years earlier when conservative prime minister John Howard was trounced by the Labor Party's Kevin Rudd.

Although he has wanted to be prime minister for much of his life, Abbott only won the Liberal Party leadership in December 2009 by a single vote, and reportedly to a "gobsmacked silence" in Canberra.

But he has stayed the course, first as Labor dumped sitting prime minister Rudd for Gillard in 2010, and then pushing Gillard to such lows in opinion polls that Labor reinstalled Rudd in late June.

Anthony John Abbott was born to Australian parents in London in 1957. He grew up in Australia, attending the University of Sydney before taking up an 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 in John Howard's government.

A Rhodes scholar and Oxford boxing blue, Abbott volunteers as a firefighter during the hazardous bushfire season and a surf life saver near his northern Sydney home.

He is often seen in lycra bike shorts and brief swimming shorts known as "budgie smugglers".

But his macho image and straight-talking has landed him in hot water in the past, particularly a comment that evidence blaming mankind for climate change was "absolute crap".

He has 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.

Australian National University politics professor John Warhurst said Abbott had moved away from his "oppositionist, negative stance" ahead of the poll.

"He has kept away from religion and politics deliberately and also issues like abortion," he said.

As The Australian's editor-at-large Paul Kelly wrote in April, every sign was that Abbott would be a very conventional Liberal prime minister if elected. "His themes are going to be stability, predictability, budget responsibility and economic growth," he wrote

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