Amidst the strong international criticism that came Sri Lanka’s way during the recently concluded Commonwealth summit, there emerged one leader of a developed country that supported Sri Lanka to the hilt: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Abbott’s and Australia’s unwavering support for Sri Lanka was in stark contrast to the stance taken by British Prime Minister David Cameron who overstepped his mark in calling for an inquiry into war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka and then set a March 2014 deadline to complete such a probe.
Cameron’s antics, widely seen as performing to the gallery of an ethnic Tamil constituency in the United Kingdom-were roundly condemned in Sri Lanka by even opposition parties, but Abbott earned plaudits for his courageous stand though he came in for some flak in his home country.
Prior to visiting Colombo, Abbott was questioned as to what his stance on Sri Lanka would be. His response was that he would ‘not lecture Sri Lanka on human rights’, seemingly a swipe at Cameron who had stated that he would have ‘some tough conversations’ with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
"I accept that by Australian standards, probably things could have been done a little differently and maybe a little better. But they have had a terrible, terrible civil war ... the savagery of which is almost unimaginable to Australians, and I thank God that the civil war has ended” Abbott explained.
" I accept that by Australian standards, probably things could have been done a little differently and maybe a little better. But they have had a terrible, terrible civil war ... the savagery of which is almost unimaginable to Australians, and I thank God that the civil war has ended "
"Yes it ended brutally, but it has ended and things are ... much, much better for all Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhala. I praise the Sri Lankan government, not for everything it has done, but for having managed to end one of the world's longest-running and most brutal, awful civil wars," Abbott said.
In Australia, Abbott has been known to call a spade a spade. He was elected the country’s twenty eighth Prime Minister three months ago, but was an efficient and tough talking leader of the opposition and led the opinion polls for many years before he won the September general polls.
Ironically, Anthony John Abbott was born in London, England, to an Australian mother and an English father fifty six years ago. The family migrated to Australia when Tony was three-years-old. Abbott was raised in Sydney and excelled in his studies at secondary school.
" I praise the Sri Lankan government, not for everything it has done, but for having managed to end one of the world’s longest-running and most brutal, awful civil wars "
He then entered the University of Sydney from where he graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Economics and Law. He travelled to Britain to study at The Queen's College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he graduated with a Master of Arts (MA) in Politics and Philosophy.[
Following his return from Britain, Abbott informed his family that he wished to become a priest. He joined a seminary in Sydney but was to quit his religious studies three years later. “I'm afraid, I just didn't have what it took to be an effective priest,” he was to say later.
After leaving the seminary, Abbott began his working life as a journalist for The Bulletin, an influential Australian news magazine, and later for The Australian newspaper. This brought him into contact with many political leaders.
He then began working as press secretary for the then leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson and Abbott’s own political ambitions began to take shape. He entered parliament through a by-election in 1994 and was appointed to the cabinet six years later by then Prime Minister John Howard.
Abbott first served as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and then as Minister of Health. In handling his ministerial portfolios, Abbott acquired a reputation for being pragmatic and efficient but also for being blunt in his public utterances.
Abbott was elected as the leader of the Liberal Party in December 2009, when it was in the opposition. He faced a general election in 2010 at which the Liberal and Labour parties each won 72 seats in the legislature, resulting in a hung Parliament, the first for seventy years in Australia.
The Labour party negotiated with other parties to form a government that was led by Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Abbott continued as Leader of the Opposition until the election this year which swept him into power with 90 seats in the 150-seat Australian Parliament.
A key component-if not the major slogan- of Abbott’s campaign at the 2013 general election was his ‘stop the boats’ policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia. These asylum seekers were mostly Sri Lankans, Iranians, Pakistanis and Afghans.
These asylum seekers had become a regular occurrence and a drain on the Australian welfare system and Abbott accused the previous Labour government of not taking drastic action against them. He announced that asylum seekers arriving illegally by boat would not be re-settled in Australia.
Prior to this, Abbott sent his shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and a delegation to Sri Lanka on a ‘fact finding’ mission. They determined that ‘refugees’ fleeing Sri Lanka by boat did so mostly for economic reasons and not due to political persecution.
At the risk of being unpopular with sections of the Australian public who advocate a softer approach towards asylum seekers, Abbott has maintained this stance on Sri Lankan asylum seekers who are now given the option of being returned to their country or being settled on the island of Nauru.
During his stay in Colombo, Abbott was also not shy of spending time aboard a vessel of the Sri Lanka Navy and he also announced the gift of two naval patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government, to be used in preventing illegal boat journeys from the country to Australia.
This too raised some eyebrows in Australia and on his return to the country Abbott was asked how he would ensure that the Sri Lankan government would use the boats only for that purpose and not for military exercises. Abbott, however, has been unapologetic for his actions.
Sri Lankans-who loved to hate Australia ever since cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan was no-balled there-would have, in the last week found a new friend in Tony Abbott. Indeed, he has been the exception among leaders of developed countries in supporting Sri Lanka both in word and deed.