Open warfare has broken out inside the Abbott government with a Liberal Party backbencher publicly stating he no longer supports the prime minister.
Late on Tuesday, backbencher Dennis Jensen was the first to break ranks and publicly declare that Tony Abbott must be removed as leader of the party and the nation.
The statement capped days of intense speculation Mr Abbott’s leadership was in terminal decline, and destroyed any chance of the government diverting attention from its internal divisions.
Dr Jensen’s statement came just 24 hours after Mr Abbott delivered a feisty speech at the National Press Club which sought to defuse leadership tensions and re-establish his standing among colleagues and the electorate.
Queensland MP Warren Entsch called for festering leadership tensions to be addressed at the first Liberal Party meeting of the year this Tuesday.
Fellow Queenslander Mal Brough agreed the issue needed to be addressed, adding that the prime minister no longer had his “unequivocal support”.
At Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop assured Mr Abbott she would not directly challenge for the top job, but did not rule out nominating for the leadership if the position becomes vacant.
As Opposition Leader, Mr Abbott savaged the Labor Party over leadership tensions between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and promised voters a “strong and stable” government if he was elected prime minister.
‘Time to go, Mr Abbott’: Jensen
Dr Jensen announced the Prime Minister should be replaced as soon as possible.
“In my view the more quickly you do this, the better,” he said. “I believe that it is necessary that this is brought to a head and lanced.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would not directly challenge the Prime Minister, but would put her hand up if his position became available. She and Mr Jensen both hold seats in Western Australia.
Dr Jensen’s intervention was a lightning rod for other disgruntled MPs.
Queensland backbencher Warren Entsch said he would seek resolution to the leadership drama engulfing Mr Abbott at a party room meeting in Canberra next Tuesday.
On Monday, Mr Entsch supported fellow Queensland backbencher Andrew Lamming, who wants Mr Abbott to scrap the knights and dames titles completely in the wake of the controversial decision to give Prince Philip a knighthood on Australia Day.
Dr Jensen said on Tuesday that Mr Abbott had been aware of his position for more than a week.
“I told the Prime Minister that on January 23,” Dr Jensen said.
“I texted him, and this was prior to the Prince Philip [knighthood] debacle, I texted him and told him that he no longer enjoyed my support.”
Dr Jensen said he was no longer behind Mr Abbott because the Coalition was “not governing as we should be”.
“There is no strategic direction, the policy is not consistent and coherent,” Dr Jensen said.
He said Mr Abbott was an “outstanding” opposition leader and “probably the best that Australia’s ever had, but he hasn’t made the transition to prime minister”.
“He is not focused on policy. He is not focused on strategic direction. He is focused more on tactics and tactical policy,” Dr Jensen said.
In an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 on Tuesday night, Mr Jensen said it was in the national interest to speak publicly about removing Mr Abbott.
“I don’t want to be seen as a hitman, I believe it is necessary it’s brought to a head, but I don’t want to be seen as pulling the trigger,” Mr Jensen said.
Also on Tuesday night, Queensland MP Mal Brough called on the Abbott government to abandon the GP co-payment.
Mr Brough was also previously touted as a contender to replace Mr Abbott.
“I absolutely have no intention of challenging the Prime Minister for leadership,” Mr Brough said.
He did not, however, offer Mr Abbott his unequivocal support.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton says the PM is being sabotaged.
“The Prime Minister needs to have a fair go and show he can deliver on his words (spoken at the National Press Club on Monday),” Mr Dutton said on Tuesday night.
In response to Liberal backbenchers pulling their support of the PM in the past 48 hours, Mr Dutton said there was plenty of support from the likes of Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull, and no one would be contending the PM’s position.
Leadership spill could go ahead next week
While Julie Bishop says she won’t challenge Tony Abbott, three coalition MPs have broken ranks and called for action.
Queensland backbench MP Warren Entsch says he’ll seek to resolve the leadership issue when the Liberal Party has its first meeting for the year next Tuesday.
Ms Bishop assured Mr Abbott on Tuesday she was not campaigning for his job.
But Dr Jensen pointed out there didn’t have to be a specific challenger for a leadership spill to be called.
Ms Bishop, however, told Mr Abbott in a cabinet meeting she was not plotting against him.
“I am not campaigning for the job of prime minister,” the foreign minister told the meeting.
“I am not ringing the backbench asking for support. I am not counting any numbers. I will not challenge the leader.”
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said Malcolm Turnbull, another leadership aspirant, had given his personal assurance he would not challenge.
Mr Entsch said he strongly supported Mr Turnbull to replace Mr Abbott.
Fellow Queensland MP Mal Brough, a ministerial colleague of Mr Abbott under John Howard, said he couldn’t offer the prime minister his unequivocal support.
“I have issues and I’m hoping to work through with the prime minister,” he told reporters on the Sunshine Coast.
“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 said he had no intention of challenging Mr Abbott.
The prime minister’s standing has been battered by the Prince Philip knighthood and other policy missteps, which some MPs have blamed for the Liberal National Party losing office in Queensland at the weekend.
Visiting a childcare centre in Sydney before returning to Canberra for the cabinet meeting, Mr Abbott said the lesson of Labor’s leadership changes from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard and back again was that “instability breeds instability”.
“If you want to get away from that, you just end it now and my message to the people of Australia is this is `Back to Work Tuesday’,” Mr Abbott said.
Dr Jensen said he did not know how many other Liberal MPs would support his call for Mr Abbott to go, but said “it’s clear that there are people that are supportive of that though”.
He said he had not decided who he would back to take over but indicated he might support Foreign Minister Bishop.
Dr Jensen also previously considered backing Social Services Minister Scott Morrison but said he heard Mr Morrison had been telling backbenchers he supported Mr Abbott.
Asked whether he could support Mr Turnbull, Dr Jensen said it would all depend on “what Malcolm Turnbull’s position becomes [on an ETS]”.
Despite his faults, Tony Abbott should be given six months to improve. The rush to kill him off looks paranoid and desperate. #libspill
— BenFordham (@BenFordham) February 3, 2015
Is Sir Prince Philip about to bring down the Australian Prime Minister? It’s been a long time since the royals had such power…. #auspol
— Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) February 3, 2015
Of course now that it’s ON, Julie and Mal may go at each other’s throats for the top job. And then it will be OFF. #libspill
— Paula Matthewson (@Drag0nista) February 3, 2015
– with ABC, AAP