Sydney: One of the Liberals’ leading conservatives and Australia’s 28th prime minister, Tony Abbott, has lost his blue-ribbon Sydney seat of Warringah after moderate Liberal voters abandoned him in protest at the role he played in opposing climate change action.
Abbott lost to the independent candidate and Olympian Zali Steggall, with the count showing she was likely to win almost 60 per cent of the vote on a two-party-preferred basis.
But Abbott’s loss appeared to be the only black spot on a night when it appeared the Coalition would hold on to government.
“I want to say to you: there is good news and bad news. There is every chance that the Liberal-National Coalition has won the election,” Abbott said in his concession speech, to chants of “Tony, Tony!”
“This — this is a really extraordinary result. It is a stupendous result. It is a great result for Scott Morrison and the rest of the wider Liberal team, and Scott Morrison will now, quite rightly, enter the Liberal pantheon forever,” he said.
“So its disappointing for us in Warringah. I can’t say it doesn’t hurt to lose. But I would rather be a loser than a quitter,” he said to wild applause.
He said the Liberals had become the party who believed that “the most important thing is to raise people up.”
“I think we can see that there is something of a realignment of politics going on right around this country. It’s clear that in what might be described as ‘working seats’, we are doing so much better.
“It’s also clear that in at least some of what might be described as ‘wealthy seats’, we are doing it tough, and the green-left is doing better,” he said.
Abbott said he had feared the worst after the result in the Wentworth by-election last year.
Backed by a number of local community groups, Steggall was drafted as a candidate to advocate for more action on the climate crisis. She had run on a platform that was almost entirely focused on taking meaningful action to counter it, including adopting much tougher targets than the Coalition has embraced — a message that resonated with the middle-class voters of Warringah. Her support was especially strong in Mosman and Manly.
The loss of one the most outspoken members of the conservative wing would normally send deep shock waves through the Liberal party, but given the other results on Saturday night it seems less certain that Abbott’s defeat will prompt internal debate about the party’s positioning on the climate crisis.
The survival of Peter Dutton in the seat of Dickson will also boost the conservative wing of the party.
Abbott said the result showed that where climate change was a “moral issue, we do it tough. But where it’s an economic issue, we do very, very well.”
Steggall’s campaign was supported by a number of grass roots groups which had formed out of disillusion with the Liberal party’s policy on the climate emergency.
In her acceptance speech she paid tribute to Abbott as “a dedicated and long-serving local member”.
“Nobody can doubt his community spirit, his work ethic, and his contribution to this community. And I wish him well.”
But she said Warringah had “voted for the future”.
“This is a win for moderates with a heart,” she said. “I will be a climate leader for you. And I will keep the new government to account, and make sure we take action on climate change.
The Warringah result is certain to be analysed in terms of what a grass roots campaign can do against a seemingly invulnerable politician.
Several high-profile former Liberal members from Mosman were behind the push to find a candidate to run against Abbott and the vote shows they were successful in their strategy to get family and friends to persuade other Liberal-leaning voters to lodge a protest vote.
There is also likely to be a heated discussion, particularly from the News Corp publications, about the role of left-leaning and progressive organisations in the political process, with conservatives warning that progressive groups represent a threat to democracy because of their deep pockets.
The seat was a hot spot for activism by GetUp, which door-knocked more than 20,000 households in the north shore and northern beaches seat, and Stop Adani, which was also active.
Abbott had held Warringah for 25 years, having won it 1994 in a by-election.
The former journalist and political adviser to John Howard became a public figure as the director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy in 1992, a position he held until he ran for the seat.
As an MP Abbott rose quickly in the Howard government and was appointed minister for employment services in 1998 after Howard won a second term.
He later became minister for health, where he sought to prosecute a conservative agenda, including seeking to ban the abortion drug RU486, a move Howard ultimately did not embrace.
After Howard lost in 2007, Abbott served in the shadow cabinets of Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull but he resigned from the front bench in November 2009 in protest against Turnbull’s support for the Rudd government’s proposed emissions trading scheme.
That set the stage for a decade-long battle within the Liberal party over climate. Abbott once branded the science of climate change “[expletive]” and led the opposition internally to wipe out subsidies for renewables and any policy that attempted to put a price on carbon.
After forcing a leadership ballot on the subject in 2009, Abbott defeated Turnbull by 42 votes to 41, to become the party’s leader and leader of the opposition.
He led the Coalition at the 2010 election, which resulted in a hung parliament but Labor, led by Julia Gillard, formed government, with the support of one Greens MP and three independents.
Regarded as fearsome campaigner, Abbott was re-elected as Liberal leader unopposed. He went on to lead the Coalition to victory in the 2013 election.
But just two years later, on 14 September 2015, Abbott was defeated as Liberal party leader 54 votes to 44 by Malcolm Turnbull, who replaced him as prime minister the following day.
Abbott was widely seen as a driving force behind the destabilisation of Turnbull’s leadership and the thwarting of the national energy guarantee, Turnbull’s policy to tackle global heating.
In 2018 Turnbull was in turn challenged and replaced by Scott Morrison.
Abbott appeared to leave open the door for a possible comeback, saying his public life was not over.