New PM will have Kiwi at his side

By Kathy Marks

Tony Abbott casts his vote with his Kiwi wife Margie and their daughters Bridget, Frances and Louise. Photo / Getty Images
Tony Abbott casts his vote with his Kiwi wife Margie and their daughters Bridget, Frances and Louise. Photo / Getty Images

It's a cliche that behind every successful man stands a woman, and Australia's new First Lady, Kiwi-born Margie Abbott, is having none of it.

"I'm beside my husband, not behind him. We're very much a team," she said on Thursday, the penultimate day of the election campaign.

Yesterday, Hutt Valley-born Margie - elegantly dressed, as ever, in a crisp blue shirt and white trousers - stood beside her husband, Tony, as he cast his vote at a surf lifesaving club in his Warringah electorate in northern Sydney, and then grabbed him to give him a quick peck.

Their three daughters, Louise, Bridget and Frances, beamed at their "daggy dad", who was expected to secure the job he has long coveted last night, with final opinion polls giving his Liberal-National Coalition an eight-point lead over Kevin Rudd's Labor Party.

Three years ago, the devout Catholic and fitness fanatic came within a whisker of the prime ministership, but was thwarted by a hung Parliament and Julia Gillard's superior negotiating skills.

Were the polls to prove correct, he was on course for a decisive victory yesterday, with pundits predicting a 40-seat majority for the Coalition.

Kevin Rudd - given a second lease of life after the party dumped Gillard in June - had fought to sway undecided voters, warning them that Coalition spending cuts would have a dire impact on health, education and jobs. But after three years of infighting and broken promises, Australians have had enough of Labor.

Rudd wept when Gillard knifed him in June 2010, and there was likely to be much for him to weep about yesterday, with marginal seats in New South Wales, Queensland and elsewhere expected to fall to the Coalition.

A former teacher who runs a community childcare centre in Sydney, Abbott's wife of 25 years - who once belonged to the Labour Party in New Zealand - remained in the background during the campaign, appearing with Tony only occasionally. (Frances and Bridget were often with him; Louise, who lives in Geneva, flew home last week.) She is, however, no shrinking violet.

Although "not an active follower of politics ... [I] leave the politics to the politician in the family", she is a forthright woman with strong views, who is expected to use her new position to highlight the causes close to her heart: early childhood learning and child protection.

Margie may have lived in Australia for 30 years, but the 55-year-old has never forgotten her roots. As a high school student in Wainuiomata, she learned Maori "to help break down barriers and, hopefully, build bridges" and, after completing her teacher training in Wellington, taught it to students.

Her daughters grew up learning Maori songs and can also perform the haka.

"There's a little bit of Kiwi in all of them," according to their mother, who is reticent about who she barracks for at the rugby, while admitting that in her childhood the All Blacks "could do no wrong ... I still have a little bit of that".

Margaret Aitken's father worked for the Post Office; her mother worked part-time while she was growing up. Schoolfriends remember her as serious-minded and academic. But she also played soccer, and loved athletics. She had many Maori friends.

Her family, who now live in Waikato, were Labour voters, and so was she before "I worked out there was more to a better life than bigger government and more people joining unions".

After teaching in Wainuiomata and Upper Hutt, Margie moved to Sydney in 1983. When she met Tony Abbott - mutual friends introduced them in a pub - he was a journalist with the Bulletin magazine and she had a marketing job at Rothschild merchant bankers.

He proposed in a Sydney restaurant, after taking her on a trek on the Kokoda Track. According to him: "I was too poor to afford a ring at that stage." When their children were young - they had the three girls within five years - she undertook community work, including visiting prisoners in maximum-security jails at Long Bay, in Sydney, and in Goulburn, near Canberra. She also ran Girl Guide groups and served on the committee of her daughters' school, where she taught Maori, as part of the cultural studies programme.

Although Tony Abbott was elected to federal Parliament in 1994 and was a minister in John Howard's government for nine years, his wife was an unknown quantity to most Australians until Gillard delivered her notorious speech last October in which she accused Abbott of sexism and misogyny.

Enough was enough, Margie decided, springing to her husband's defence in a series of interviews in which she described him as a "feminist" and "softie" who cries in movies and helps with the housework.

Firmly rejecting the idea "that somehow Tony doesn't get women ... [and] is on some anti-women crusade", she declared: "It's simply not true." Since then, the public has learned a little more about her. She supports gay marriage, in contrast to Tony, and believes "it's a conversation that Australia needs to have".

She took up cycling this year - he is a fanatical cyclist - and has since lost 20kg, enabling her to swap clothes with her daughters. And while she thinks her husband looks good in his "budgie smuggler" Speedos, "he looks even better in board shorts".

She is also generous towards his political foes, describing Rudd's wife, Therese Rein, as "impressive and pleasant ... obviously an incredibly capable businesswoman".

The two women have met, just once, when the Abbotts invited the Rudds - who were holidaying in Tony's beachside electorate in 2002 - to a barbecue.

There is still much to learn about her. As Helen McCabe, editor of Australian Women's Weekly, told News Corp papers this year: "We know him incredibly well ... but we still don't know that much about her."

How will Abbott affect NZ? p39

- Herald on Sunday

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