The starting gun has yet to be fired on the federal election but former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been working hard garnering support in his Sydney seat of Warringah. The Bug embedded its cub politics reporter Farrah Malcolm-Dennis with Abbott for a day to ascertain just how worried the local member is over the threat posed by high profile independent Zali Steggall.
I’m reluctant to shake Tony Abbott’s hand when we first meet outside a charming bungalow high in the suburb of Fairlight with its impressive views over the sea off Manly.
He’s holding in his left hand a very large plunger still dripping with what could be water and both sleeves of his shirt are also wet.
The federal Member for Warringhah does that thing he does with his mouth when he’s about to say something witty or clever: “Phew, that was one bunged-up bog Mavis had there.
“The poor old thing simply didn’t know her loo got blocked over a month ago – well, that’s when the neighbours first noticed the stench – and she’s been using it every since. I’m just so glad she called and I could help.”
The long-term federal member for the affluent electorate on the North Shore – one he’s held rather comfortably for the Liberals for a quarter of a century – checks a little notebook he’s plucked from the back pocket of his workman’s khaki overalls to see what’s next on the agenda.
“Oh, yes,” Abbott says, wiping off his forehead moisture that could be rather dark-coloured sweat. “The dead dog under the house in Killarney Heights.”
He does that thing with his mouth again: “We’re going from a smelly bog to a even smellier dog,” he says, followed by that fake “ha ha ha” laugh he’s renowned for. I wonder if the man has ever laughed or smiled naturally.
“Leave your car here and come with me, young lady. I’m going to have to go home and grab my hook.”
An hour later, Abbott is using a small bottle of disinfectant/antiseptic gel to vigorously wash his hands after a 40-minute exhaustive fight to recover what might once have been a German shepherd from under a low-set home in the electorate’s west.
“Not sure how long Tessa’s been dead but the bugger broke in half just as I was about to pull her clear. What a pong, eh?
“Still, it’s what you do when you’re an active local member. I don’t brag about all these things I do for my local constituents but, sure, of course you hope that the voters factor all that in when they walk into that polling booth in May.
“But enough of that. Come with me. I’ll freshen up back at home and then I’ve got important work down on the esplanade.”
Abbott leaves me down in the garage to admire his pollie-pedal bike while he takes a quick shower. He comes down the front stairs wearing nothing but a blood red mankini and carrying a jar of what turns out to be dollar coins.
He does that thing he does with his mouth before he’s about to say something he thinks is witty or clever and then adds: “You can write me up as Manly’s Meter Man if you like.
“Tourism is so important to Manly so I like to spend a few hours a day just feeding expired meters around the ferry terminal, side streets to the Corso and the esplanade proper.
“I love doing it and besides while we’re down there I’ll check to see how my campaign to get more portaloos around the surf club and general area.”
He does that mouth thing again before adding: “There’s been so much crap around the beachfront in recent years maybe they should rename it Climate Change Esplanade.”
Another fake “ha ha ha” laugh is cut short by an incoming call on his mobile.
“Yeah. Okay. Thanks, I’ll get right on to it,” he says before ending the call.
“I’m afraid the meters will have to wait,” Abbott tells me. “We’ve got a floater just outside the surfline on the northern side of the esplanade near the salt-water baths.”
“A dead body?” I ask, thinking my colour piece has suddenly turning into something far more dramatic that could lead to a paid job if not an actual grading.
“No, no. Not this time. It’s a brown mullet. And a bloody big one by the sounds of it.”
He shouts up at a front window: “Darl, could you bring down our pool scoop?” He turns to me and explains: “I’ll use a surf ski down at the club to save time.”
While we’re waiting, I pluck up the courage to ask whether blocked bogs, dead dogs under houses, feeding expired meters, campaigning for more portaloos and scooping shit out of the water are really the tasks of a senior federal member of parliament and not duties you’d expect from a local council or tourism office.
Abbott gives me a long wink and does that thing he does with his mouth whenever he’s about to say something he thinks is witty or clever, and I’m slowly realising that’s all the time, and says simply: “All politics is local, love. All politics is local.”