Australian PM Abbott defiant as MPs call for his head

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was fighting for his job Wednesday after backbenchers publicly called for a Liberal Party vote on his leadership following months of tensions stoked by fading poll numbers and policy backflips.

AFP| Last Updated: Feb 04, 2015, 15:37 PM IST

Canberra: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was fighting for his job Wednesday after backbenchers publicly called for a Liberal Party vote on his leadership following months of tensions stoked by fading poll numbers and policy backflips.

A handful of MPs late Tuesday openly revolted against the conservative leader after Abbott`s recent controversial decision to make Britain`s Prince Philip a knight helped bring simmering tensions to the surface. 

West Australian MP Dennis Jensen was the first to say Abbott should go.

"I don`t think the leader and his office are listening and communicating effectively," Jensen told ABC television.

"I believe that it is necessary that this is brought to a head and lanced."

Queensland MP Warren Entsch reportedly said "something has got to come to a head" and that he would seek a resolution when the Liberal Party meets on Tuesday, February 10.

Former minister Mal Brough, another Queensland MP, also broke ranks, telling Sky News: "I don`t have unequivocal support for the prime minister today."

He added: "The matter needs to be resolved and if Tuesday is the appropriate time for people to talk about it ... then it`s for them to say so."

He ruled out challenging Abbott.

The prime minister tried Wednesday to brush off the revolt as a sign of a "robust" Liberal Party.

"We`ve always had a robust party room, and I hope that will always continue," Abbott told Macquarie Radio.

"What I think everyone in the party room understands is that the last thing we should do is go anywhere near reproducing the rabble of the Labor years," he said, referring to the ousting of prime ministers under the previous government.On Monday, Abbott said he would not step down despite severe criticism of his decision to make Prince Philip a knight on Australia Day, January 26.

The ridicule that greeted the appointment of the nonagenarian consort of Queen Elizabeth II as a knight of the Order of Australia incensed his own MPs -- who were already dealing with plunging poll numbers, policy backflips and an unpopular budget.

Abbott`s Liberal-National coalition romped to power in a September 2013 election but is now trailing the opposition Labor Party 46 to 54 percent, a Fairfax-Ipsos poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed Monday.

The poll also found that Abbott`s rating as preferred prime minister had slipped from 39 to 34 percent, while Labor leader Bill Shorten had climbed to 50 percent. 

Abbott, an avowed monarchist, claimed to have learnt his lessons, promised greater consultation and insisted he was still the right person to head the government.

"It`s the people that hire and frankly it`s the people that should fire," he said in a pointed remark on Monday. 

The leadership quarrel follows a dismal result in a Queensland state election, which still hangs in the balance and saw a huge swing against the ruling conservative administration that many blamed on federal issues.

Treasurer Joe Hockey led ministers lining up to support Abbott on Wednesday.

He said there were 102 members in the party room but only a handful had spoken out against Abbott.

Reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian newspapers, however, suggest as many as 30-40 MPs could back a leadership change.

"The cabinet is unanimous in its support for the prime minister," Hockey told reporters.

"I can understand that various members of parliament have grievances ... but we have an obligation to be united and to provide stable government."

He warned colleagues not to become a "carbon copy" of the Labor Party during the tenure of former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Labor leader Rudd was ousted in 2010 in a party room coup by his deputy Gillard, who was in turn herself removed by Rudd in 2013.

"Australia threw them out. They`ll throw my colleagues and me out if we are not focused on what is important for the Australian people," Hockey said.

Abbott`s deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, who has been tipped as a potential prime minister over her strong performance as foreign minister, has ruled out a direct challenge.

"I am not campaigning for the job of prime minister," she declared Tuesday. "I will not challenge the leader."

But Bishop left open the possibility of standing if the party room turns against Abbott and declares the leadership vacant.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a moderate who lost the party leadership to Abbott in late 2009 by one vote, would be in a similar position, with his colleagues saying he has no intention of making a challenge.