Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has brought forward a challenge to his leadership to tomorrow in the interests of ending uncertainty about his government’s direction.
The challenge was triggered by disgruntled government MPs last week and was to be discussed on Tuesday at the first scheduled meeting for the year of the ruling Liberal Party’s 102 MPs.
But Mr Abbott said he had arranged a special meeting for tomorrow morning, leaving some MPs scrambling to book earlier flights to the nation’s capital.
“The last thing Australia needs right now is instability and uncertainty,” he said.
Mr Abbott has come under increasing criticism from some members of his own party – which is conservative despite its name – over the government’s sagging approval ratings.
Polls have slumped since May, when the government’s first annual budget was widely criticised as toughest on the poor and most vulnerable.
A polarising figure, Mr Abbott likes to project himself as a macho man of action, but he also has image problems, particularly among female voters.
Recently, he drew widespread criticism by making the Duke of Edinburgh an Australian knight on Australia’s national day. Many saw it as an insult to worthy Australians.
Public dislike of Mr Abbott has been blamed in part for big election losses for conservative governments in Victoria state in November and Queensland state last month.
If a so-called spill motion passes tomorrow, the positions of prime minister and his deputy, foreign minister Julie Bishop, will be declared open.
There would then be secret ballots of Liberal MPs to either return Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop or replace them.
Mr Abbott is counting on a majority of his party colleagues defeating the motion so that the ballots do not take place and the level of his support is not tested.
No MP has yet announced he or she would be prepared to run against Mr Abbott if the motion passed.
Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, who led the party in opposition until he lost to the more conservative Mr Abbott in a leadership ballot in 2009 by a single vote, is seen as the favourite to replace him.
Mr Turnbull refused to say today whether he would contest the leadership.
“The Cabinet ministers are all expected to support the prime minister on a spill motion,” he told Nine Network television, indicating that he would vote against the motion.
Government MPs had mixed reactions to the news that the leadership crisis would be discussed hours before Parliament is due to sit for the first time this year. Some first heard of the change through the media.
Arthur Sinodinos, a senator who is critical of Abbott and who has announced his support for the motion, said his colleagues’ decision should not be rushed.
Government MP Teresa Gambaro accused Mr Abbott of “belligerence and hubris” and of creating “an internal climate of fear and intimidation” in the party since he became its leader more than five years ago.
MPs could be influenced by an opinion poll published today by News Corporation newspapers that found the government would be more popular with Mr Turnbull at the helm, but would still trail the opposition centre-left Labour Party.
The poll found the government currently trailed Labour 57% to 43%. Under Mr Turnbull, 49% of respondents would prefer the Liberals and 51% would prefer Labour.
Mr Turnbull is a multi-millionaire former merchant banker whose nickname is “The Silvertail,” an Australian term for the wealthy and influential.
He supports legalising gay marriage and lost the party leadership over his support for an emissions trading scheme.
Mr Abbott wants to maintain Australia’s ban on same-sex marriage and is opposed to making polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.
His government made good an election promise by abandoning Australia’s carbon tax last year.