Prime Minister Tony Abbott says there is no time limit on his political recovery, declaring he is a “fighter” and that he hopes to “substantially” pass the test on his leadership every day.
As Mr Abbott began the process of changing public perceptions of his ailing leadership, he confronted the media to begin recasting the narrative.
But in a telling interview on the ABC’s 7.30 program, host Leigh Sales pointed out there had been multiple versions of Mr Abbott – the Opposition Leader, the newly elected Tony Abbott and now a PM promising “good government” after a leadership scare.
“Which Tony are you?” Ms Sales asked, referring to the PM as “Tony 3.0”. Mr Abbott found it a difficult question to answer.
Mr Abbott stays on as a wounded Prime Minister after nearly 40 per cent of his colleagues effectively declared no confidence in him at a Liberal leadership spill vote in the party room on Monday.
Meanwhile, the latest Newspoll showed him to be the most unpopular leader since Paul Keating two decades ago.
He also, at least for now, retains Joe Hockey as Treasurer, Peta Credlin as his chief of staff, and controversial changes to health and education as official policy.
“I will let the Australian people form their own conclusions (on me),” Mr Abbott said on Monday night.
“We had a difficult day and we’ve had a couple of tough months, but I am a fighter.
“I know how to beat a Labor party; I beat Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and I’ll beat Bill Shorten – what I’m not good at is fighting the Liberal party.”
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The PM found it difficult to explain which one of the three personalities was the real Tony Abbott.
“We’ve had the Tony Abbott in opposition, the guy who promised no more chaos, the adults back in charge, the ‘no excuses and no broken promises’,” Ms Sales said.
“Then there’s the Tony Abbott we’ve had so far in government with the surprise policies and broken promises and the captain’s picks.
“Now you’re offering us a third Tony Abbott – one who’s going to change. Who are you?”
— abc730 (@abc730) February 9, 2015
During a fast-tracked 9am meeting on Monday, 61 Liberal MPs voted against a spill motion to vacate the party’s leadership positions, with 39 MPs moving to hold a vote for a new leader.
The level of support for the spill motion, in the absence of an alternative candidate, has sent a clear message to the PM – there are bitter divisions within his party.
Mr Abbott described the ballot as a “near-death experience” but asked colleagues to have faith in him.
When asked how he would move forward from this – after almost half the backbenchers felt their PM wasn’t fit for the job – Mr Abbott said that was something not to “dwell on”.
“What I’ll say to my colleagues is we’ll go on together and build a better Australia,” Mr Abbott said Monday night.
“We can’t dwell on these things, we need to look at what the government is going to do in the days and weeks ahead, and focus on jobs and families and what the public wants.”
When questioned if he could not turn things around in a reasonable time, would he step aside to give his Liberal colleagues a fighting chance, Mr Abbott scoffed.
“I am going to give a fighting chance of winning the election,” Mr Abbott said.
Another very important constituency
But tough talk on electoral success will only go part of the way to securing his job.
Mr Abbott must also convince voters to give him a second chance, and after the ongoing suffering that budget 2014 inflicted on Mr Abbott and his Treasurer, that effort may focus on this year’s federal budget.
Nearly $30 billion in savings measures remain stalled in parliament.
The Prime Minister conceded the government might have been “too bold and too ambitious”, with a number of its measures stuck in the Senate.
“We did, with the wisdom of hindsight, bite off more than we could chew,” Mr Abbott told reporters after surviving the spill motion.
But he says he has listened and learnt.
“I have changed and the government will change with me,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott said political history showed that many governments faced difficult times.
He said the John Howard government, in which he was a junior minister, was widely expected to be a one-term government in the last year of its first term.
“Every government grows into the role. The Howard government was a better government for most of its second term than it was for most of its first term,” he said.
“We will get better.”
Labor’s satisfaction at Monday’s spill result was tempered only by the suspicion that Mr Abbott might still not last the week.
“Tony Abbott promised he would run a stable and united government. This is his biggest broken promise yet,” Mr Shorten said on Monday.
“The Liberal government is in paralysis – and Australian families and the Australian economy are paying the price for chaos.
“The Prime Minister and his ministers should be protecting the living standards and jobs of all Australians but they’re only interested in their own jobs.”
Former ACT Liberal chief minister Kate Carnell, now chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Mr Abbott needed to focus on running the country.
“We’d prefer he spent less time trying to beat Bill Shorten and more time in trying to put together a vision for Australia, one that’s based upon economic growth but at the same time, keeping a lid on budget expenditure,” she told ABC TV.
– with ABC