In the dying days of the 2009 federal parliamentary year, the Liberal party took the plunge.
Amidst uncertainty about the idea of signing up to a bipartisan agreement on an Emissions Trading Scheme, the parliamentary Liberals decided to get rid of its then leader, Malcolm Turnbull, and replace him with – well, someone else.

Interestingly, the speculation at the time was that shadow treasurer Joe Hockey – an avuncular fellow who, it was thought at the time, would be acceptable to the various factions in the party – would reluctantly accept the top job.

As is now well known, the inept numbers men got it all rather wrong and, instead of Hockey, Tony Abbott ended up as the leader.

There was a certain degree of commentator incredulity about Abbott’s ascendancy.

A lot of this was due to the role Mr Abbott had previously played as something of a loyal deputy to John Howard.

This role went beyond being the then government’s main parliamentary strategist – a role that also required him to lead the government attack against the opposition.

Abbott’s other task was to be the main champion of the Howard government’s social conservatism.

This conservatism proved to have a strong religious resonance.

Mr Howard’s religiosity is well known amongst students of politics mainly because so much scholarly work has been published about it.

In the public realm, however, Howard tended to back away from being seen to be too closely aligned with ‘the church’.

This was especially the case after the furore that erupted following the appointment of former Anglican archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General.
After this, Howard sought to exude a certain detachment from controversies arising from debates about the extent to which religion should be part of the Australian political debate.

The battle on behalf of religious conservatism would be undertaken by his lieutenants, and, of these, Abbott was arguably one of the most eager to take up the battle.
As part of this campaign, Abbott ostentatiously paraded his quite conservative Catholicism.

Sometimes this would lead him in to almost excruciating candour about aspects of his personal life we really didn’t want to hear about (such as the claim that he had fathered a child with a former girlfriend he did not marry – a claim later shown to be wrong).
Often, it led him in to highly contentious policy debates particularly about human reproduction.

In these debates Abbott (with the tacit support of Howard) would take a very conservative stand-point.

Often he was defeated by more moderate forces within his own party.
It is this aspect of his past record that appears to be now dogging the Liberal leader.

As last week’s brouhaha over a magazine article’s report of his advice to his daughters on the matter of sex before marriage shows, Mr Abbott has plenty of critics just waiting for the opportunity to attack him.

The point is that these attacks often hark back to the contributions he made to debates back in the days when John Howard was prime minister and Mr Abbott appeared to have free licence to advocate conservative church dogma as the basis for public policy-making.

Does all this mean that Tony Abbott is potentially a disaster as Liberal leader?
Well, no, because one of the tasks that Abbott set himself on becoming leader was to re-build the Liberal party base.

What this means is that Abbott needs to do something about ensuring that the Liberal and National party vote in the seats that they already hold (and especially the marginal ones) does not fall any further.

Opinion polls were suggesting that the Turnbull leadership was resulting in a serious decline in support for the Liberals amongst their own supporters. Abbott had to turn this around.
Abbott is succeeding in this task.

The Liberals have already had two electoral successes in by-elections, and the polls are showing a swing back to the Coalition.

Any controversy about Abbott’s views on matters such as sex before marriage or the ethics of reproduction probably won’t resonate that much in the marginal seats where the voters are more concerned about economic matters.

On this front Mr Abbott has also had some early success.

The failure of the Copenhagen meeting on climate change has stranded the Labor government. In the meantime, the Reserve Bank keeps threatening to raise interest rates. The Rudd government is facing a difficult time in the lead-up to the next election.

Given the disastrous way the year ended for the Coalition in 2009, Mr Abbott can be well pleased with his performance as Liberal leader thus far.

The evidence is there that the Liberal base is getting behind their new leader. The task ahead is to now extend that momentum to the marginal seats.

A fascinating contest is in prospect, and people should not underestimate Tony Abbott.

Dr Economou is a senior lecturer in Politics at Monash University.