Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott went on a media blitz last year, trotting out friend after friend (read: Woman after Woman) to testify that he is actually a nice man in private (and definitely not a misogynist). Yesterday, the Sydney Morning Herald picked up the torch and interviewed another person who knew Abbott in private. Political Correspondent Peter Hartcher painted him as a complicated man, with a private side and competence much different from his public image, a Minister Abbott and a Tea Party Abbott:

“A lot of people think he’s hairy-chested and makes an immediate decision, but he wasn’t like that,” says Podesta, who now works with the Fred Hollows Foundation for preventing blindness. “He does have his immediate political and ideological centre but so does every minister. He is open to evidence. He was a thoughtful minister. He would have quite an intense process of investigating and then going with the evidence. I found him genuinely open and committed to positive reform.”

So who is the real Tony Abbott? A former US ambassador to Australia, Robert McCallum, described him to Washington as “a polarising right-winger ” with a “propensity for insensitivity and controversy” , according to a cable published by WikiLeaks.

The shorthand for this might be the description that Labor MP Rob Mitchell gave Abbott: “Neanderthal.” This is the Tony Abbott who spent the past two years demonising Julia Gillard, calling for a “people’s revolt” against the carbon tax, cheering on nutters and fringe-dwellers who turned out in response, associating himself with a crowd of angry malcontents carrying abusive and sexist placards. It’s the Abbott whom Gillard called a sexist. This is Tony the tribal leader, Tony of the Tea Party.

Or is he the responsible, thoughtful, decent minister who listens to advice and functions effectively as part of a stable, successful government , the Abbott that Lesley Podesta encountered? This is Tony the national leader, Tony the John Howard protege.

Again, who is the real Tony Abbott? The heartless thug whom the journalist Annabel Crabb nicknamed People Skills after his dreadful swipe at the champion of asbestos sufferers, Bernie Banton? The erratic boofhead of whom Anthony Albanese likes to say: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Or is he the careful reformer who can successfully manage a major transformation and take care to protect the lives of the people who may be bruised by the change? He’s both. Abbott transmuted from responsible, caring minister to angry, barnstorming demolition man as opposition leader , and now he’s moving to change back again. He threw the switch in December, saying he wanted to be no longer Dr No, but Dr Yes.

If Tony Abbott really is as wonderful as he had been painted by all those who know him so well, wonderful. If Abbott has decided to “flip a switch” and start acting like a statesmen, brilliant. But the very fact that we can have a national dialogue like this is a problem. Abbott seems to have forgotten that the position he is applying for is a public one. Perception, especially international perception matters (see the difference in how President Obama and President George W. Bush are treated). It matters greatly that the leader of Australia is not seen as an intransigent oaf, no matter how obliging or competent he may be in private. It affects how much respect he will receive from around the world. It affects how Australians will react to his proposals; a visceral reaction or a considered one. In other words, it has real world consequences. Whatever the outcome of the election, lets hope Abbott ditches his second personality and remains the competent, humble man all these people are painting him to be. It won't just be Abbott that benefits.