Of all the laws that govern Australia, few feel as good as compulsory voting. At my polling booth in Bondi Public School in Sydney on Saturday’s general elections, voters formed an orderly line as volunteers handed out how-to-vote cards pointing to the major parties and a plethora of minors like the Sex Party and Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks Party. The nostalgic aroma of fried sausages wafted from a barbecue manned by members of the parents-teachers association, while schoolgirls sold cupcakes from a stall nearby. Standing in the queue ahead of me was an old lady from Russia living in Australia for 10 years who candidly asked me who I was voting for. When I answered, she said she didn’t like their policies but nevertheless wished me a nice day. “The things that unite us are more powerful than the things that divide us,” said outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. “[This] is why the world marvels at Australia, this country that can manage its political differences peacefully.”
Rudd’s usurper is Tony Abbott, a 55-year-old British-born conservative with a colorful background. After migrating to Australia with his parents as a toddler, Abbott returned to the U.K. as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University where he enjoyed a brief and undefeated stint as a heavyweight boxer. Following a trip to Africa that had a profound impact on his psyche, Abbott joined a Catholic seminary in Sydney. But after three years as a trainee priest, he gave up the frock for a career in journalism until he won a seat in Parliament in 1994. In between teaching at remote Aboriginal communities and working as a volunteer firefighter, Abbott has built a political career defined by determination and a candor that struck a chord with the average Australian. (When asked about burqas in the final leg of the campaign, he said, “Frankly, it’s not the sort of attire I would like to see widespread in our streets.”) Now Abbott reached his political peak, delivering the center-right Liberal-National coalition its largest parliamentary majority since the Great Depression.
The landslide at the polls had been widely anticipated, with online bookie Sportsbet declaring it a one-horse race and paying out all bets on Abbott nine days before the elections. The incumbent may have steered Australia through the global financial crisis but was hamstrung by a series of scandals and Game of Thrones–like infighting. Rudd had only been on the job for nine weeks after ousting Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female leader, who had deposed Rudd in 2010 after a series of bungles and backflips that had paralyzed the government. “It was more of an election lost by the government than won by the opposition,” former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke commented on Sky News.
When Rudd first swept to power in 2007, the elections were framed as a referendum to introduce a carbon tax on big polluters. Australia produces around 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person every year, more per capita than the U.S. and almost any other nation.
But Saturday’s elections represented a total about-face. With the price of electricity doubling under Rudd’s and Gillard’s tenures and the manufacturing sector shrinking 5% per year, Abbott’s promise to scrap the carbon tax proved irresistible to voters — even though carbon pricing is likely to resurface. Australia just suffered its hottest summer on record, with the thermometer at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport hitting 32.4°C on election day in early spring.
Other winning elements of Abbott’s campaign included a promise to use the navy to forcefully turn back asylum seekers arriving “illegally” by boat and slash Australia’s humanitarian intake by half, to 13,750 people a year. Combined with plans to cut forward spending on foreign aid by $4.1 billion, the election result paints the picture of a more selfish and self-insulating Australia. Critics also think it will undermine the country’s reputation on the world stage in light of it taking over the presidency of the U.N. Security Council. “[Australia is] so wealthy and yet so impoverished in spirit and global leadership,” mulled the Australian-born First Lady of East Timor, Kirsty Sword Gusmão, on Facebook upon hearing East Timorese women and children will be worse off after the Australia elections.
But the reality of governing a nation in a global community and the inevitable need to strike cross-bench deals with parliamentary members who campaigned for more humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers will likely see Abbott’s most-radical election promises on refugees and foreign aid watered down.
“Some of the things he’s said are cause for concern. But a lot of that was rhetoric for the election, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him moderate his position,” Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry, tells TIME. “Tony Abbott is a cautious realist and in many respects a centrist.”
The floor is now open for Abbott to create a legacy of prosperity and social justice for Australia in the image of his mentor, former Prime Minister John Howard. Trounced by Rudd at the polls six years ago, Howard fought back the tears as his protégé took to the stage at a hotel in Sydney on Saturday and declared Australia was “under new management and is once more open for business.”