Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been labelled ‘damaged goods’ after more than a third of his parliamentary colleagues voted to clear the way for a new leader of the Liberal Party.
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.
Soon after the leadership vote Mr Abbott provided a short statement to Channel Nine, declaring the leadership matter was “behind us”.
He chose not to hold a press conference or answer questions from the media in the immediate aftermath of the meeting.
“We are absolutely determined to work for you the people who elected us,” Mr Abbott said.
“We want to end the disunity and uncertainly which destroyed two Labor governments and give you the good government you deserve.
“We think that when you elect a government, when you elect a prime minister, you deserve that government and that prime minister until you change your mind.
“The focus now is once more on jobs, families, a stronger economy and a secure nation.”
At 1.30pm, Mr Abbott held a press conference and faced questions from the media.
“We have looked over the precipice and decided we are not going to go down the Labor Party path,” he said.
When asked if Treasurer Joe Hockey had his full confidence, the PM failed to defend the embattled cabinet minister.
Mr Abbott was also quizzed about his controversial chief of staff Peta Credlin and said if MPs had a problem with a particular person, his “door is always open”.
The spill vote follows a horror run of declining polls for the Abbott government, and Coalition election losses in Queensland and Victoria.
Momentum for a leadership change began to gather momentum after Mr Abbott made a “captain’s call” to knight the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.
Communications Minister and former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was touted as a potential replacement for Mr Abbott in the lead up to Monday’s vote, however he refrained from declaring his candidacy, saying that as a cabinet minister, he supported the prime minister.
A Newspoll published in The Australian on Monday showed the Abbott government continuing to shed voters, trailing Labor 43 to 57 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.
The gulf between the major parties widened by 6 per cent, compared with the December result.
In a personal blow to Mr Abbott, the his approval rating was the lowest of any prime minister since Paul Keating in 1994.
A Fairfax Ipsos poll, published on the same day, showed the federal government’s unpopularity was affecting Coalition prospects in the upcoming NSW election.
One in 10 NSW Liberal voters said the Abbott government’s poor performance had dissuaded them from supporting the party at a state level.
The poll predicts the Coalition will retain government in NSW at the March election, despite an 8 per cent swing to Labor.
Clock is ticking
Monash University’s Zareh Ghazarian said although Mr Abbott emerged victorious today, his days could be numbered.
“He has two-third’s support for the moment, but it has positioned him in a fairly perilous position going forward,” Dr Ghazarian told The New Daily.
“It’s not too hard for that 39 to become 52 in perhaps a few weeks time,” he said.
“Whenever these sorts of debates are had in the public, the leader takes damage. They are damaged goods and I don’t think it’s any different this time around.”
Dr Ghazarian said despite the significant blow to Mr Abbott’s authority, the government still had time to reverse the disastrous poll results.
“He has already started to do things,” he said. “He’s obviously trying to be a bit more conciliatory in terms of policy decisions.
“It may be the case that the government when it was elected in 2013 felt they had a mandate to move quickly on a large number of big social and economic issues.
“This suggests the party room has tried to apply the brakes and change the direction of the government.
“This has obviously given him a big signal about how to change.”
Immediately after the vote, the government’s chief whip Philip Ruddock emerged from the party room to declare the result of the 61-39 spill vote.
“That seems to have resolved the matter,” he said.
“These matters are dealt with without debate and proceed on that basis.
“There are party meetings tomorrow and I am sure in the context of the matter having been clearly resolved there may well be discussion about how we should proceed now.”
One informal vote was registered and another MP was absent from the meeting due to the birth of his child.
Parliament resumed on Monday after the summer break.
– with Ebony Bowden