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Abbott patient, polite and full of personal peculiarities

Tony Abbott, a second-year economics student at Sydney University, is photographed in his office.

Tony Abbott, a second-year economics student at Sydney University, is photographed in his office. Photo: Archive photo

Federal bureaucrats rated Tony Abbott as one of the better ministers in the Howard government, but one with frustrating peculiarities.

His handwriting was appalling and his numbers were illegible but he was patient and polite with mandarins and listened to criticism, but didn't enjoy it.

Along with this style, he was not a ruthless minister who enjoyed slashing budgets, according to an observer of his time in the health portfolio.

''He didn't have an appetite for nasties, cuts were never explored with relish. People find this amazing but he doesn't seek conflict,'' the unnamed insider is quoted as saying.

The claims are made in a long article about the Opposition Leader being published today. Former Fairfax writer David Marr wrote the article, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, for the latest issue of Quarterly Essay.

He writes that bureaucrats dreaded Easter when the minister disappeared on Pollie Pedal and brought back some odd ideas to the departments from people who got in his ear.

''As with all ministers, anecdote is very powerful,'' an anonymous bureaucrat is quoted as saying.

Public servants were also frustrated that he would disappear for days behind closed doors to write another 900-word opinion piece for a newspaper. ''For the most part he left policy thinking to his departments, he and his office were not a source of fresh ideas,'' Marr writes.

He notes that Mr Abbott has talked in the past about being prime minister to make a difference and to ensure a more cohesive society.

''I asked him why he wanted the job - he had an answer but he won't let me say what it was,'' Marr writes, indicating the reply was off the record.

The article ranges over Mr Abbott's early days at university, his entry into Parliament, running portfolios and becoming Opposition Leader.

''Abbott's party is hoping his strategy of total war will last the distance and they are hoping sometime soon, we might come to like this man,'' Marr writes.

''If we don't, he will be asking us to do something we've never done before - replace a government we don't like with a leader we don't like either.''

He analyses the Opposition Leader's career under the headings ''Politics Abbott'' and ''Values Abbott''.

''His values have never stood in the way,'' he writes.

He had at least six positions on the value of an emissions trading scheme to tackle climate change before he became Opposition Leader, Marr claims. He says a win by Mr Abbott at next year's election would lock Australia into a cycle of hyper-aggressive opposition.

''What worked for him would be done to him,'' Marr writes.

The author says Mr Abbott often backtracks swiftly from statements such as that he felt ''a bit threatened'' by homosexuality.

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