Coalition MPs call for leadership vote, saying spill needed to replace Tony Abbott. Prime Minister Tony Abbott leaves the National Press Club after delivering his long-awaited ‘agenda-resetting’ speech on Monday. Photograph: Xu Haijing/Xinhua/Photoshot. The Coalition backbench appears determined to force a leadership showdown, with two MPs openly calling for a vote and others claiming that a third of the party room are already behind a change of prime minister. West Australian backbencher Dennis Jensen – who has regularly attacked his own government’s decisions – said it was time for the leadership issue to be “brought to a head” because Tony Abbott’s leadership was “terminal”.
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Jensen said he had texted Abbott in January, before Prince Philip’s knighthood, to say he no longer had his support and the political situation was “untenable”. “There is no strategic direction in where we are going,” he said. He said as opposition leader Abbott had been “a great wartime leader” but the country now needed “a great peacetime leader”. Jensen said a leadership spill did not need to have a specific challenger but he was not “directly” aware of whether a vote would be moved when MPs returned to Canberra next week. Queensland MP Warren Entsch also called for a ballot. And former Howard government minister, now backbencher, Mal Brough has attacked two government policies at a community forum in his electorate and agreed that the leadership issue “needs to be resolved”.
Brough said his support for the prime minister was “qualified”. Brough said that the government should abandon plans for a GP copayment because it “doesn’t make economic sense and it doesn’t make health sense”. He said the government should look for savings from the hospital system instead. After a bitter backlash from GPs, the government did shelve some Medicare changes that doctors said would have resulted in a $20 GP copayment – but the new health minister, Sussan Ley, is negotiating an alternative to the budget savings policy with doctors. The government is still wedded to a copayment “price signal” and an essential way to reduce spending. He also attacked the decision to cut defence force wages, saying “it sent a really negative message to the men and women in our defence force” and did not save much money. Brough also said the prime minister was wrong to claim that only voters could fire a prime minister, saying it was “his very strong view that the prime minister is there while he retains the majority support of the party room”.
The immigration minister Peter Dutton said the prime minister was being “sabotaged in each media cycle” – something that had all the hallmarks of the Rudd and Gillard years and was bad for the country. He said the “staged process” of destabilisation was “unfair”. He said the prime minister had received unanimous support at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. Despite both alternative contenders for the leadership – Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop – telling colleagues they are not agitating for change, some backbenchers are claiming that a third of the Liberal party room would support a leadership shift.
The assertion cannot be verified but, along with the increasingly open criticism of the prime minister and his policies, serves to create a momentum for change and a sense that the leadership speculation cannot stop until there is a vote. But Abbott has made it clear he will not stand aside, and is seeking to allay his colleague’s concerns and quell the dissent, including about the powerful role played by his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Credlin did not attend Tuesday’s cabinet strategy meeting, and some Coalition sources said she would no longer be attending cabinet. After the meeting Abbott held a team-building barbecue with ministers and their chiefs of staff.
But Tuesday’s news was dominated again by leadership – this time a report that Bishop had refused to guarantee she would not challenge at a Sunday night meeting with the prime minister. The deputy Liberal leader was forced to issue a statement saying she would not. “I am not campaigning for the job. I am not ringing the backbench asking for support. I am not counting numbers.
I will not challenge the leader,” she told cabinet ministers at a strategy meeting in Canberra on Tuesday afternoon. The disarray and anonymous backbiting in the Liberal party is infuriating Abbott loyalists and some in the National party. Nationals MP Michael McCormack told Guardian Australia he wished the Liberals could be more like his party. “We are not into bloody coups, or knifing people in the backs, if there were more people like us, I think we would be better off,” he said. “The difference between what we [in the Nationals] said and what the Liberals have said is we put our name to it. McCormack said he warned the prime minister by text he had spoken out against the knighthood because that “is the way politics was done in the Nationals” and while the Nationals did not have a vote on the leadership, he personally supported Abbott to remain in the job.
The intensifying speculation came as a new poll showed an increasing majority of voters viewed Abbott as out of touch, arrogant and erratic. highlighting the difficulties he faces in rebuilding confidence in his leadership. The poll also shows Bishop, rapidly narrowing Turnbull’s lead as the voters’ preferred leader of the Liberal party. with 24% preferring Turnbull (a reduction of 7% since June) and 21% Bishop (an increase of 17%).
Only 11% prefer Abbott (down 7%). The treasurer, Joe Hockey, rated only 5% and the social services minister, Scott Morrison. just 2%. Among Liberal and National voters Bishop is ahead of Turnbull as preferred leader, on 26% compared with 24%.
As the prime minister’s approval ratings hit a new low of 27%, the Essential poll asked voters to describe their opinion of Abbott and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Abbott’s “key attributes” were that he was out of touch with ordinary people (72% – a 6% increase from December), arrogant (65% – up 4%), narrow-minded (63% – up 2%) and erratic (60% – up 8%). On those same measures, 45% rated Shorten as out of touch (up 5% since December), 31% said he was erratic (up 1%), 39% said he was arrogant and 38% said he was narrow-minded. Shorten’s key attributes were that he was intelligent (62% – compared with Abbott’s rating of 50%), hard-working (61% to Abbott’s 58%), understands the problems facing Australia (52% to Abbott’s 35%) and a capable leader (47% to Abbott’s 34%). Leadership speculation continues despite Abbott’s press club address on Monday in which he abandoned two unpopular “captain’s pick” policies (on personally awarding knighthoods and dameships and his “signature” plan for paid parental leave) and to warn backbenchers that only the voters should be allowed to “fire” the prime minister, and despite intensifying efforts by the prime minister and his office to talk to the backbench. The Essential poll, which showed the Coalition’s overall support unchanged at 46% of the two-party-preferred vote compared with Labor’s 54%, was based on 1,019 interviews conducted from 30 January to 2 February.