THE CASE FOR THE POSITIVE
Regular consumers of television or online news over the past 12 months could be excused for thinking that Tony Abbott, the man who seems poised to become prime minister in September, possesses just one solitary tie, the pale blue one you see him wearing whenever he's in a suit.
Like everything else about the man who shocked many in his own party (and many more outside of it) when he secured the Liberal leadership by a single vote in November 2009, the tie is part of a grand, and very calculated, plan to transform Abbott from being one of the most effective negative politicians in the country's history to leadership material.
"I decided a year or so back that blue is the Liberal colour, a plain blue tie is pleasant but not distracting, and the fewer surprises in your appearance the better, because then people aren't focused on your appearance," is how Abbott explains the tie. "They're focused on what you're saying. So, invariably, I have on a dark suit, a white shirt and a blue tie."
More recently Abbott changed not what he was saying, but the way in which he said it. Viewers of his latest performance on the ABC's 7.30, for example, could have been excused for thinking he had just graduated from the John Howard school of media training. But it was all his own work.
"Occasionally, light bulbs go off in your head and I observed in myself one day a distinct difference in the way I would answer people at doorstop press conferences and the way I would deal with people, for argument's sake, at a community forum in my electorate," he reveals.
"When my constituents ask me questions, it doesn't matter how obtuse or tendentious they are, you've always got to hear them out and then give a reasonable response. Now, I noticed that I was becoming a little snappy to people at these doorstop press conferences, and I decided that that really wasn't a good look - that as far as the public was concerned, the people asking me questions might as well be members of the public, rather than annoying journalists who are QCs for the prosecution."
Then there is the question of policy substance, and the morphing of Dr No into something altogether more considered, constructive and, dare one say it, statesmanlike. Witness his performance this week on Julia Gillard's decision to partly fund the planned national disability insurance scheme by increasing the Medicare levy, where Abbott's commitment to the cause eliminated any temptation to rail against the prospect of another "big new tax".
Abbott, or Abbo to his mates, is sitting in a motel room at Hall's Gap, after riding one of the more testing legs of his week-long Pollie Pedal, and reflecting candidly on the work-in-progress that is his political career, and the notion of personal growth.
"There's no doubt that, in the course of his public life, John Howard grew enormously from being a rather divisive opposition leader to being a very effective party unifier and a very strong and reforming prime minister," he says. "Bob Hawke went from being a sort of mug lair union official to being a bit of an industrial statesman, to being probably the best Labor prime minister Australia has ever had."
The challenge for an opposition leader, as Abbott sees it, is to make the leap from being a "tribal chief" to a national leader. "It doesn't mean that everyone is going to agree with that person; it doesn't mean the individual is going to be universally popular. But, in his or her own head, a successful opposition leader at some point has got to reach out and engage with everyone if that person is going to become a successful prime minister."
That has been Abbott's mission for the past several months. It will be his biggest priority in the weeks leading up to September 14.
It's easy to forget, but difficult to overstate, the level of scepticism and low expectations that accompanied Abbott's ascension to the Liberal leadership 3½ years ago, when he beat Malcolm Turnbull, 42 votes to 41. Back then, he was seen as divisive, ill-disciplined, too far to the right of his party (and the Liberal constituency) and likely to implode even if his party did not.
That none of this happened invites two conclusions: that we underestimated him from the start, and that he applied himself to the task with all the determination and self-discipline of an athlete training for sport's ultimate test: the ironman triathlon. Both are true.
Yes, there are still significant reservations that are reflected in a disapproval rate of 53 per cent in recent Fairfax/Nielsen polls, and plenty of scope for error in the coming weeks. But the trend is positive for Abbott (his disapproval rating was 63 per cent in December) and the massive two-party preferred lead of the Coalition (57 to 43) suggests the electorate is reconciling itself to an Abbott prime ministership.
Much of the resistance to Abbott can be traced to two things: his ruthless pursuit of Gillard's accident-prone minority government - which, for instance, produced the unedifying spectacle last May of him sprinting from the chamber in an attempt to avoid voting with tainted Labor MP Craig Thomson - and the difficulty in categorising him.
He is the social (and institutional) conservative who shows the compassion of the Jesuits in some areas, embraces the ideology of the free market and small government, and exhibits a fierce desire to win.
If that is not complicated enough, there are the apparent contradictions: the fiscal conservative who is still intent on delivering one of the world's most generous paid parental leave schemes (when the state of the budget gives him the perfect excuse to pare it back); the Jesuit who trained for the priesthood whose attitude to uninvited arrivals is utterly uncompromising.
"I don't like putting tags on myself because I think most human beings in their mid-50s are nuanced, and tags often obscure as much as they reveal," says Abbott, 55. "I'm someone who has a great deal of respect, even reverence, for the society, the culture, the institutions which have shaped me and shaped the world in which I live. I'm more inclined to restore things than reform things. In that sense, I'm a respecter of tradition - even though I would never want to be completely controlled by it."
Asked to nominate his mistakes as Liberal leader, he replies: "I don't want to start branding particular things as mistakes, but obviously some of the interviews I've given could have been better. I can certainly think of two Kerry O'Brien interviews (on 7.30) that could have been better." Both were in 2010.
Abbott's progress cannot, however, be explained simply in terms of his self-discipline and Labor's propensity for self-harm. While images of Abbott in Speedos or Lycra are a turn-off for many, the reception Abbott receives on his Pollie Pedal, now in its 16th year, suggests otherwise.
Abbott concedes that some would think of Pollie Pedal - which this year is raising money for Carers Australia - as an indulgence "because the alternative prime minister shouldn't be getting on his bike and raising money for charity, however good the cause".
But he also sees a political upside. "I think the Australian public quite like someone who has a go. I think the public are inclined to rather like leaders who don't fit that kind of homogenised, pasteurised, sterilised mould."
Abbott displayed none of the above this week. At Mount Gambier, he sat with young carers and listened to their stories of trauma, tragedy and sacrifice. Ellen Holmes, who turns 21 this month, explained how she had become a third parent and full-time carer after two brothers and her mother were stricken with a rare and devastating disease.
"I am a young healthy woman that has responsibilities that are beyond my years and I would love for someone to not have to go through all the struggles alone like I had to," she later explained, adding that Abbott had shown empathy and understanding.
The Liberal leader was clearly moved by the discussion, remarking later that it was one the reasons the nation needed the planned national disability insurance scheme.
At a community forum at Hamilton, Abbott was measured and engaging in tone, but chose not to say everything that many in his audience wanted to hear. When, for instance, Anne expressed her opposition to wind farms, he invited a show of hands from the audience of who was for and against them. When this revealed a 50-50 split, he chuckled and said: "Interesting management exercise for a government!"
He also outlined what he described as a serious failure in the capacity of the local health system after one of the Pollie Pedal riders was badly injured when hit by a feral deer - and taken to one hospital where the resident, "overseas-trained" doctor did not want to provide an anaesthetic.
The local ambulance service, Abbott suggested, should have known the injury was not treatable at that hospital and taken him directly to Mount Gambier, where the rider ended up. Stressing that he was not critical of individuals, he concluded: "You've got to have capable doctors in these hospitals, experienced nurses in these hospitals because, if they are going to serve a useful purpose, they've got to be capable of doing the things that people reasonably expect."
On the ride, Abbott shows another side altogether. He's the first to perform karaoke after dinner (including a rousing, off-key version of Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman) and to share jokes at his expense with friends who have known him since his university days.
I join Abbott for a leg of the ride, with local Liberal MP Dan Tehan, and he chats relaxedly about sport and surfing as he approaches the small Western District town of Merino. He reveals an ambition to compete in next year's Port Macquarie ironman, an event with a 3.8-kilometre swim, a 180-kilometre bike ride and full marathon run to finish.
Next year's Pollie Pedal would be in April and it would be good preparation for the gruelling ironman event in May. But that would be less than two weeks before the first budget of an Abbott government would be announced.
When I ask at Hall's Gap if he is serious, he says: "The prime ministership is the biggest job in the country, and you can't be indulgent as a prime minister. But I think the Pollie Pedal can continue, should I be prime minister, because I think it would be good for prime ministers to get about to small regional communities the way I've been able to do over the years through Pollie Pedal.
"And I think even prime ministers are allowed to take one Sunday off. So, provided I'm not going to make a fool of myself, I don't see why I couldn't do an ironman as prime minister."
The commitment to the Pollie Pedal and to spending a week volunteering in a remote indigenous community would distinguish an Abbott government from its predecessors but, in almost all other respects, Abbott makes it plain that the role role model is Howard, and the aim will be to "under promise and over deliver".
The signature policies are the scrapping of the carbon tax, the paid parental leave scheme and what he describes as "a sustained, hands-on prime ministerial involvement with indigenous affairs". The signature pledge is to "stop the boats" and Abbott says: "I would be dismayed if, by the end of our first term, we hadn't very substantially stopped the flow."
In the meantime, Abbott says there is gratification of sorts in having, thus far, defied the predictions of the critics. "But there's really only one thing that counts for an opposition leader, and that's winning an election. You can have a very effective and unified opposition, but if you don't in the end win the election, it's all somewhat in vain.
"So I will not allow myself any satisfaction until polling day - and then only if the result is the right one."