Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott faces leadership challenge

February 6, 2015 9:52 am
Government
lawmaker Andrew Nikolic told colleagues in an email that the challenge
was the “ill-disciplined and self-interested behaviours that the
Australian people explicitly rejected in 2013.”
“Your actions are
disappointing and divisive,” Nikolic told Simpkins in an email copied
to other Liberal lawmakers. “You do not have my support for this.”
Government
lawmaker Dennis Jensen, who like Simpkins is from Western
state, on Tuesday became the first to publicly state he had lost
confidence in Abbott.
Colleague Sharman Stone said earlier Friday
that the growing leadership crisis needed to be resolved next week when
parliament sits for the first time this year.

Australia’s Prime Minister . Photo / AFP
The fight over conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s
leadership broke out into the open today, with a member of his party
triggering a potential challenge next week.
Lawmaker Luke
Simpkins said in an email to colleagues that he will move a motion at a
ruling Liberal Party meeting on Tuesday calling for Abbott to declare
that his job and that of his deputy Julie Bishop are open to a ballot of
102 government lawmakers.
It is not yet clear whether any lawmaker will be nominated to run against Abbott or his foreign minister. The party’s chief whip Philip Ruddock confirmed that the ballots would go ahead if the motion is passed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Halfway
through his first three-year term as prime minister, Abbott had been
under increasing pressure over poor showings in opinion polls.

Public dislike of Abbott is blamed in part for conservative
governments suffering big election losses in Victoria state in November
and Queensland state in January.
He has also been widely
criticized for making Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip, an
Australian knight on Australia’s national day last month.
Simpkins
said in an email to party colleagues the knighthood for Prince Philip
was “the final proof of a disconnection with the people.”
“I think we must bring this to a head and test the support of the leadership in the party room,” he wrote.
Bishop and Communication’s Minister Malcolm Turnbull have been touted as potential replacements for Abbott.
While
both have made public statements of support for Abbott, they can now
sound out supporters from within government ranks now that the ballot is
officially on the meeting agenda.
Abbott has warned his
colleagues against such a challenge. He said Australians had voted out
the chaotic and divided center-left Labor Party government in 2013
because it had changed its prime minister twice in four years.
Government
lawmaker Andrew Nikolic told colleagues in an email that the challenge
was the “ill-disciplined and self-interested behaviours that the
Australian people explicitly rejected in 2013.”
“Your actions are
disappointing and divisive,” Nikolic told Simpkins in an email copied
to other Liberal lawmakers. “You do not have my support for this.”
Government
lawmaker Dennis Jensen, who like Simpkins is from Western Australia
state, on Tuesday became the first to publicly state he had lost
confidence in Abbott.
Colleague Sharman Stone said earlier Friday
that the growing leadership crisis needed to be resolved next week when
parliament sits for the first time this year.
“If Tony gets through this, we’ve got to get behind Tony,” she said.
“If
someone else does, that’s our leader and we get behind that person and
we diminish the prospect of having Labor back in because that would be
totally catastrophic,” she said.
Tony Abbott came to power promising Australians “mature” and “stable”
government after the in-fighting of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. Just
17 months on, his own prime ministership is on the line, with Coalition
MPs preparing for a possible leadership ballot next week that could see
him toppled by Malcolm Turnbull.
After a week of backbench
grumbling and fevered speculation about the leadership, the West
Australian MP yesterday brought the situation to a head,
announcing he would push for a ballot at Tuesday’s meeting of federal
Liberal and National Party politicians.
The move was welcomed by
backbenchers who believe the Coalition has no chance of winning next
year’s election with Abbott in charge. But the Prime Minister’s allies
were dismayed, with the Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic likening it to the
“ill-disciplined and self-interested behaviours that the Australian
people explicitly rejected in 2013”.

Abbott himself was defiant, declaring that he and his deputy,
Julie Bishop, would “stand together” to defeat Simpkins’ motion for a
ballot to be staged. However, if the motion succeeds, both leadership
positions will open up, leaving Bishop – who has won plaudits as Foreign
Minister – free to make a tilt for the prime ministership.
Turnbull
– who led the Liberals until 2009, when Abbott defeated him by just one
vote – will be in a similar situation. The other possible candidate,
Scott Morrison, who is well regarded for his tough action to “stop the
[asylum-seeker] boats”, yesterday ruled himself out.
After an
atrocious first year for the Government, largely attributed to an
unpopular and poorly marketed budget, Coalition politicians were hoping
for a good start to 2015.
Dire polls, though, were compounded by
Abbott’s bizarre Australia Day knighting of Prince Philip – a “captain’s
call” which horrified his colleagues. Then came last weekend’s
phenomenally bad election result for the Liberal National Party in
Queensland, in large part attributed to the federal Government’s woes.
As
backbench discontent grew and festered this week, it seemed no one was
willing to lance the boil. While both Bishop and Turnbull covet the top
job, neither wanted, perhaps, to be the person plunging the knife into
Abbott. Memories of the anti-Gillard backlash are still fresh.
It
was no coincidence, commentators believe, that when the move finally
came, it originated in WA, Bishop’s power base. Simpkins’ motion will be
seconded by another WA MP, Don Randall, and is supported by a third,
Dennis Jensen.
Bishop – whose statements have been closely
monitored this week – chose her words carefully yesterday, telling
Fairfax Media she would oppose the spill motion out of “cabinet
solidarity”. Conspicuously, she did not declare Abbott to be the best
person to lead the Government.
If she does challenge, she will,
presumably, say that she was reluctantly co-opted and agreed to do so
only in the interests of the Coalition and the nation.
This week,
both she and Turnbull have stressed the importance of a united team.
Like her, Turnbull, the Communications Minister, has otherwise kept his
cards close to his chest.
As for the rest of the Cabinet, some
ministers were said to be increasingly worried by the crescendo of noise
from the backbench.
What no one knows is the level of support
for Bishop or Turnbull – or even whether Simpkins’ motion will be backed
by a majority – at least 52 – of Coalition politicians. However, if the
motion is not passed but is supported by a substantial number, Abbott
may decide to call a ballot anyway, in order to resolve an untenable
situation. He could even decide to bring the party room meeting forward
to Monday and call a ballot then.
What seems certain is that,
even if Abbott wins a ballot or if no ballot takes place, he will be
badly wounded, and it will only be a matter of time before the requisite
numbers mass against him. There, too, the parallels with Rudd’s
campaign to push out Gillard are instructive.
Whatever happens,
the Coalition will lose the moral high ground. As Trade Minister Andrew
Robb warned on Sky , before Simpkins announced his motion: “If
something happened on Tuesday which led to a spill, we would be seen as a
bunch of amateurs.”

Power games

Kevin Rudd lost the 2013 election to Abbott. Photo / NZPA
Kevin Rudd lost the 2013 election to Abbott. Photo / NZPA

Kevin Rudd: in power from December 3, 2007, to June 24, 2010.
Total of 906 days. Ousted in first term by Julia Gillard in leadership ballot.
Julia Gillard: in power from June 24, 2010, until June 27, 2013.
Total of 1100 days. Ousted by Rudd in leadership ballot.
Kevin Rudd: in power from June 27, 2013, to September 7, 2013.
Total of 73 days. Lost 2013 election to Tony Abbott.
Tony Abbott: in power since September 7, 2013.
By next Tuesday, the day of a possible leadership ballot, he will have been in power for 522 days.

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