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Under-fire Australian PM vows not to resign

Monday, February 2, 2015 - 15:25
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Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday he had not contemplated stepping down, as pressure mounted on his leadership following a controversial decision to make Britain's Prince Philip a knight.

[SYDNEY] Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday he had not contemplated stepping down, as pressure mounted on his leadership following a controversial decision to make Britain's Prince Philip a knight.

Abbott faced ridicule after naming the nonagenarian consort of Queen Elizabeth II a knight of the order of Australia last month, incensing members of his ruling coalition who were already dealing with falling poll numbers, policy backflips and an unpopular budget.

When asked by reporters if he had considered resigning, Abbott said "no" - but admitted: "I accept that I probably overdid it on awards." He said he believed he was the right person to lead the government, after reports that some colleagues were under pressure to challenge him.

"Let me make it absolutely crystal clear, we were elected in 2013 because the Australian people rejected chaos. And we are not going to take them back to that chaos," he told the National Press Club in Canberra.

"It's the people that hire and frankly it's the people that should fire." Abbott's Liberal-National coalition romped to power in a September 2013 election but is now trailing the opposition Labor Party 46 to 54 per cent, a Fairfax-Ipsos poll in The Sydney Morning Herald showed Monday.

The poll of 1,400 people questioned at the end of last week also found that Abbott's rating as preferred prime minister had slipped from 39 to 34 per cent, while Labor leader Bill Shorten had climbed to 50 per cent.

"I never came into politics to be popular," said Abbott, after being asked why people did not seem to like him.

The dire polling follows a dismal result in a Queensland state election, which still hangs in the balance, but which delivered a huge swing against the ruling conservative administration.

Abbott conceded the government had struggled to get its message across. He promised a more consultative style of leadership and confirmed he would not be making decisions on knighthoods in the future - leaving it entirely to the Order of Australia Council.

Outlining his government's agenda for 2015, Abbott said the focus would be jobs, families, roads, national security and small business as he flagged a new crackdown on extremist groups.

He said his "signature" policy for a paid parental leave scheme, which would have paid new mothers 26 weeks of their actual wage capped at Aus$100,000 (US$77,810) and has long been criticised as too expensive, was "off the table".

Abbott's troubles have raised the prospect of a mid-term leadership challenge. Reports have suggested Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, or Social Services Minister Scott Morrison could be contenders.

But as The Australian's editor-at-large Paul Kelly noted, there were "still no serious candidates".

"Look, we've had a rough couple of months, I accept that," Abbott said.

Bishop said she had had a "delightful meeting" with Abbott on Sunday night, adding that she supported him. She refused to confirm whether they had spoken about her challenging him for the leadership.

"I don't reveal the details of private conversations I have with any leaders, let alone my own prime minister," she said.

A leadership challenge would revive memories of the sudden removal of Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010 in a party room coup by his deputy Julia Gillard. Gillard was herself ousted by Rudd in 2013.

Current Labor leader Shorten described Abbott's comments as "a desperate speech from a politically drowning man" only interested in hanging on to his job.

"This man has got the wrong policies for Australia in the 21st century. He's more focused on Buckingham Palace than Beijing," Shorten said.

AFP