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Speculation rises on early Australian election as PM's fortune turns

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Speculation is mounting in Australia that Prime Minister Tony Abbott may call an early election just months after narrowly surviving a leadership challenge to capitalise on a well received budget and an opposition in apparent disarray.

[SYDNEY] Speculation is mounting in Australia that Prime Minister Tony Abbott may call an early election just months after narrowly surviving a leadership challenge to capitalise on a well received budget and an opposition in apparent disarray.

Many had assumed that the conservative Mr Abbott, who has until January 2017 to call an election, was essentially finished after having narrowly survived the challenge from within his ruling Liberal Party in February amid record low popularity.

But far from leaving him a lame duck, Mr Abbott has led his government into a near dead-heat with the opposition, despite a range of missteps from his handling of the economy to the awarding of an Australian knighthood to Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip.

And with opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten's popularity slumping, the media has seized on the idea of a snap election that could see Abbott seize both houses of parliament - a remarkable turnaround.

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An obviously pleased Abbott has attempted to pour cold water on the idea, accusing the media of "hyperventilating" over the issue.

"Can I just say that we've had the best fortnight in the life of this parliament," he told reporters on Monday. "Why would you want to close the parliament down just when it's starting to work?" But Peter Chen, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sydney, said Mr Abbott may very well be considering a snap election.

"The prime minister is an opportunist. He's a populist. He's got a good kind of sense of the popular side of politics," Mr Chen told Reuters. "So clearly, I think if he saw a window of opportunity, he'd go for the snap."

Mr Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey were savaged in 2014 for handing down an unpopular budget that slashed spending on social welfare in order to rein in spiralling deficits.

Major changes to the education and healthcare systems were knocked back by an unruly upper house following an outcry that saw Mr Abbott's approval ratings dip to record lows.

But Mr Abbott appears to have learnt from those mistakes, said Mr Chen, delivering a 2015 budget light on radical reform that puts off painful structural reforms until after the next election.

With Shorten struggling to articulate his policy alternatives and popular government budget items such as tax breaks for small businesses resonating with the public, Mr Abbott may be wise to strike while the iron is hot, Mr Chen said.

"If there was an election called today, the coalition would win," he said, referring to Mr Abbott's ruling Liberal-National alliance.

REUTERS

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