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Tony Abbott teetering as allies suffer poll humbling

Monday, February 2, 2015 - 09:57
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Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces a career-defining push to steady his leadership after a state election humbling for allies added to doubt over his future in the post.

[MELBOURNE] Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces a career-defining push to steady his leadership after a state election humbling for allies added to doubt over his future in the post.

Mr Abbott, 57, acknowledged the potential ousting of the Liberal National Party in Queensland after a single term had sent a warning to his national government, which won power in September 2013.

State Premier Campbell Newman lost his own seat in the Jan 31 elections and the opposition Labor Party said it was optimistic it will form a new government after final results are confirmed in coming days.

Mr Abbott's Liberal-National coalition has suffered the fastest poll reversal for a newly installed federal government in at least 30 years after retreating on election pledges not to cut spending on schools, hospitals and the public broadcaster.

Mr Abbott, who faced a backlash against his decision last month to grant a knighthood to Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II's husband, will seek to shore up his leadership with a speech Monday to the National Press Club in Canberra.

"It's probably his last shot in the locker," said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Brisbane's Griffith University.

"It might even be too late, I'm not sure that Tony Abbott could say anything to repair the damage that's been done."

POLL SETBACK

Support for Mr Abbott has fallen to 27 per cent, with 44 per cent favoring opposition leader Bill Shorten, according to a Galaxy poll published Sunday in News Ltd. newspapers.

The coalition government slipped to 43 per cent support on a two-party preferred basis, trailing Labor on 57 per cent, the poll showed.

"There is obviously some muttering, and some chattering, but the Cabinet is strongly united behind the prime minister," Liberal senator and Attorney-General George Brandis told Sky News television Sunday.

A leadership challenge to Mr Abbott after about 17 months of office would mirror the woes of the previous Labor government, which saw then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in a 2010 party coup.

At the time of his dismissal, 36 per cent of voters surveyed by Newspoll were satisfied with Mr Rudd's performance; the latest survey put Mr Abbott's satisfaction rating at 33 per cent.

Mr Rudd returned to office in 2013 by deposing Ms Gillard in an internal vote.

SENATE ROADBLOCK

"I think he's got until the end of this week," independent senator Nick Xenophon told reporters Sunday in Adelaide, referring to Mr Abbott.

"Unless there's a dramatic turnaround in both Tony Abbott's policies and approach to the government in the next few days, I think he's basically gone." Abbott's government relies on support from minor parties and independents to pass legislation in the Senate, where it lacks a majority.

An Ipsos poll of 1,405 voters published Sunday by Fairfax Media newspapers showed Labor leading Mr Abbott's coalition by 54 per cent to 46 per cent on a two-party basis.

Queensland's Labor party, which was reduced to 7 of the state legislature's 89 seats in a 2012 poll defeat, has won 43 seats in the Jan 31 elections compared with 40 seats for the Liberal National Party as counting continues, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. A party needs 45 seats for a majority.

'UNDER PRESSURE'

"It's the most extraordinary comeback in political history," Norman Abjorensen, a Canberra-based political analyst at the Australian National University, said by phone of Labor's performance in Queensland. "Abbott's leadership is certainly under pressure." State Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk signaled her party wouldn't proceed with Newman's plan to reduce the state's debt pile by raising A$37 billion (S$39 billion) through the lease of electricity, water and port assets.

In Victoria, Labor ousted a first-term Liberal-National coalition in elections in November. New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, will hold a ballot in March with coalition Premier Mike Baird seeking to retain office.

"We can't continue as we are, with not taking the people with us," Jane Prentice, a federal lawmaker with Mr Abbott's Liberal Party, told the ABC on Jan 31. "We are getting bad feedback."

Mal Brough, a lawmaker with Mr Abbott's party who served as a minister in the government of John Howard, has been asked by colleagues to mount a campaign to seize the leadership, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Jan 31, without citing any source.

Such a "stalking horse" move would facilitate challenges from higher profile figures such as foreign minister Julie Bishop or communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, ousted as party leader by Abbott in 2009, it said. Ms Bishop said Mr Abbott retained her support when asked by reporters Monday if she would mount a challenge.

"There'd be a charge of hypocrisy against the Liberal party after the political capital they made out of the Rudd- Gillard affair," Mr Abjorensen said of any leadership challenge.

"Though fundamentally, they are a pragmatic party." Mr Abbott's Canberra speech will set out revisions to policies including a signature proposal to provide new mothers with paid parental leave, he told reporters Sunday.

The paid parental leave plan is "off the table," assistant treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on ABC radio Monday.

Mr Abbott will use his National Press Club speech to announce further strengthening of national security laws, reforms to Foreign Investment Review Board operations and a small business and jobs package, the Australian newspaper reported.

"We have listened, and we have learned," Mr Abbott said on Sunday in Sydney. "We will be a more consultative and collegiate government in 2015 than we were in 2014. We will not take the Senate for granted."

Social Services minister Scott Morrison backed Mr Abbott as leader, saying Monday's speech would be a chance to change the narrative.

"There's a good opportunity to reflect on the challenge ahead, and the way we can attack this problem," Mr Morrison said on Sky News.

Mr Abbott will explain how he intends to increase consultation with "those who have the ear closest to the ground, which is our government members."

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