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Tony Abbott to be Australia's new prime minister. Who is he?

He's a former boxer, a Rhodes scholar, a Catholic seminarian, and plans to ax a controversial carbon tax and pass an anti-asylum law. 

By John ZubrzyckiCorrespondent / September 9, 2013

Australian Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott (r.) meets with Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson in Sydney Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.

Saeed Khan/AP

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Sydney

For Tony Abbott, being elected Australia’s 28th prime minister may be a dream come true. But it hasn't changed his morning regime. 

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The day after sweeping aside the more familiar Kevin Rudd in the Sept. 7 election, Mr. Abbott donned his bike gear, adjusted the straps on his bike helmet, and set off on his daily 90-minute predawn ride along Sydney’s northern beaches.

Having demonstrated his physical stamina, he then took on any leftover skeptics by changing into more formal attire and meeting with government department heads to brief them on his ambitious agenda.

Mr. Abbott, once considered too overtly religious and too socially conservative to be electable, now rides a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, leaving Labor contemplating its worst primary vote in more than a century.

“He is an unknown, but he has consistently surprised on the upside as opposition leader, as a campaigner and now possibly as prime minister,” says Stephen Mills, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Government at Sydney University.

“Much will depend on whether he heeds his advisers and recognizes that the public service is there to help, rather than impede,” he says. 

Labor avoided the complete wipeout that most polls had predicted.

Yet with less than half a dozen contests undecided, it is a Liberal-National coalition that is likely to win between 88 and 90 seats, compared with 55 to 57 for Labor.

Abbott, a former boxer, Rhodes scholar, and Roman Catholic seminarian, promised to deliver a calm and methodical style of government.

Abbott told a Sydney radio station on Monday that he did not want the next Parliament to meet until new legislation, particularly laws to repeal a controversial carbon tax, was ready.

"The last thing I want to do is to rush the Parliament back for a photo opportunity before the substance of the work is there for it to do," he said. "It will be back toward the end of October, early November."

The issues 

Also on Abbott's agenda is enacting a controversial policy to deter asylum seekers, including turning boats back to Indonesia.

The issue took on a new urgency on Monday when a boat carrying 57 asylum seekers was intercepted off Christmas Island. The boat was also carrying two journalists from The New York Times who had valid visas for Australia.

Other priorities for the incoming Abbott government include implementing a generous paid maternity- and paternity- leave program, repealing an unpopular mining tax, and implementing an alternative to Labor’s $34.5 billion national broadband network.

The hurdles

But Abbott's Liberal-National coalition faces an uphill battle to implement these and other policies. Although it did well in voting seats for the House of Representatives, it fell well short of the majority it needs to get its legislation through the Senate or the upper house.

Australia’s complicated preferential voting system means that up to eight so-called microparties will control the balance of power. This includes the anti-immigrant One Nation party, the Motoring Enthusiast Party, and the Australian Sports Party, the latter of which scraped in just 0.22 percent of the vote in Western Australia.

“It will be a challenge for the government to negotiate with these senators on a day-by-day week-by-week basis on a whole lot of legislation,” says Michelle Grattan, associate editor of The Conversation, a news group. 

Although Mr. Rudd has resigned as Labor leader, at least three former ministers have called for him to quit politics altogether.

But Sydney University’s Dr. Mills believes Labor will need to do much more than dump Rudd if it is to govern again.

“Labor’s structural problems are profound. They can’t assume they have hit bedrock and that their support will not fall even further,” says Mills. 

Part of the reason for that, says Mills, was the leakage of Labor votes to minor parties such as the Palmer United Party. Led by eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer, the PUP polled nearly 6 percent nationally, the strongest debut for a national party in more than a decade, and enough to win him a seat in the House and two in the Senate.

For now, no one in Labor has put up their hand for the tough job of leading a politically demoralized party back from defeat. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is well qualified for the job, but is tainted by his association with Rudd. 

The other front-runner is Bill Shorten. Having served just two terms, Mr. Shorten is seen as one of Labor’s new generation of potential leaders and is credited with implementing the National Disability Insurance program, one of the outgoing government’s signature policies.

“Labor has to get a leader able to command authority within the party as well as having appeal to the public,” says Ms. Grattan. “That’s not necessarily easy.”

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