CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s “unelectable” and gaffe-prone political leader Tony Abbott confounded critics Saturday by becoming the country’s latest prime minister, leading the opposition to a sweeping election victory and ending six years of Labor Party rule.
Abbott, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition, rode a wave of public bitterness over a hated carbon-emissions tax, worries about a flagging economy and frustration over government infighting to win the election.
The result was a stunning turnaround for Abbott, 55, a former Roman Catholic seminarian and Rhodes scholar who has never been particularly popular and was once dubbed unelectable by opponents — and even by some in his own party.
He emerged victorious thanks, in large part, to the frustration of a country fed up with Labor and its once-popular leader, Kevin Rudd, who had engaged in a yearslong power struggle with his former deputy, Julia Gillard.
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Gillard, who became the nation’s first female prime minister after ousting Rudd in a party vote in 2010, ended up losing her job to Rudd three years later in a similar internal party coup.
“I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people,” Abbott said in his victory speech late Saturday.
Rudd conceded defeat less than four hours after polls closed on Australia’s east coast, and a mere half-hour after polls closed on the west coast. By then, it was apparent that Labor was headed for a loss.
“I know that Labor hearts are heavy across the nation tonight, and as your prime minister and as your parliamentary leader of the great Australian Labor Party, I accept responsibility,” Rudd, teary-eyed and flanked on stage by his wife, Thérèse Rein, said in his concession speech. “I gave it my all, but it was not enough for us to win.”
Rudd, who retained his seat in Queensland state, added that he would not seek the Labor Party leadership in the new Parliament.
With more than 90 percent of votes counted, official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed the Liberals ahead 53 percent to Labor’s 47 percent. The coalition was on track to win 91 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, and Labor 54.
For a range of reasons, Abbott has been dismissed by many critics as not being prime-minister material. A supremely fit volunteer lifeguard, he is often parodied in the media for wearing the red-and-yellow cap and brief swimwear worn by Australian lifeguards.
He has joked that during the five-week election campaign he was forbidden to wear swim briefs, known in Australia as “budgie smugglers” — a reference to the budgerigar, a small Australian parrot called a parakeet in the U.S.
Abbott’s approval ratings recently improved in polls, but he remains relatively unpopular, particularly among women voters.
“All those ridiculous people who said he was unelectable should understand how foolish they were to underestimate him,” former conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who promoted Abbott to his Cabinet during an 11-year reign, told Seven Network television Saturday.
Abbott was regarded as a competent minister. But his aggressive politics, social conservatism and knack for igniting controversy raised questions about his suitability as a potential national leader. He was elected party leader by his Liberal Party colleagues in late 2009 by a single-vote majority.
In the latest campaign, he was criticized for listing a female candidate’s “sex appeal” as a political asset, then defending himself by calling it a “charming compliment.” In another incident, he accidentally drew laughter during a speech by saying no one is the “suppository” of all wisdom, when he apparently meant to say “repository.”
But the drama between Rudd and Gillard, combined with Labor reneging on an election promise by imposing a deeply unpopular tax on the nation’s biggest carbon polluters, proved deadly for Labor’s re-election chances.
Rudd’s deputy, Anthony Albanese, conceded that voters had walloped Labor for its endless displays of disunity. “You do get marked down when there’s a perception or reality of disunity, and no doubt that’s one of the issues that’s come through in terms of the election campaign itself,” he said.
Abbott, when sworn in this week, will become Australia’s third prime minister in three months. He has vowed to scrap the carbon tax and instead introduce taxpayer-funded incentives for polluters to operate cleaner. He promised to deter the people smugglers who over six years of Labor rule sent more than 50,000 mostly Middle Eastern asylum-seekers on boats across from Indonesia.
The former journalist also pledged to rein in government borrowing and restore the budget to surplus by cutting spending, pruning the civil service and slashing foreign aid. Also targeted will be Labor’s mining super-profits tax that Abbott claims has shrunk investment in a sector that produces half the nation’s exports.
“From today, I declare that Australia is under new management and that Australia is once again open for new business,” Abbott said.
It is unclear whether Abbott will be able to pass the necessary law changes through Parliament, but he has threatened to call early elections if the Senate thwarts him.
Saturday’s election likely brought Australia’s first Aboriginal woman to Parliament.
Former Olympian Nova Peris is almost certain to win a Senate seat for Labor in the Northern Territory, but the final results will not be known for days. Less likely is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bid for a Senate seat in Victoria state.
Material from Deutsche Presse-Agentur and The New York Times is included in this report.