Tony Abbott has moved to stare down backbench dissidents, warning their spill motion will fail and he’ll take that as an endorsement of his leadership.
Liberal MPs who came out on Saturday expressed unqualified support for their leader, but the man speculated to emerge as his challenger, Malcolm Turnbull, remained holed up inside his Sydney home.
Mr Abbott said the coalition was elected to end the “Game of Thrones circus” of chaos and disunity of the Labor years which featured three prime ministers and constant leadership turmoil.
In a show of solidarity and business-as-usual, Mr Abbott was flanked by deputy party leader Julie Bishop and Nationals leader Warren Truss when he faced the media to make an airport announcement in Townsville.
He said the current situation was never about him but about delivering good government.
“Should this spill motion be defeated, as I expect, I will be taking that as a strong endorsement of the existing leadership team, as a vote of confidence,” he said.
Silent on Saturday were dissenters, headed by WA Liberals Luke Simpkins and Don Randall, who on Friday announced they would put a motion to Tuesday’s party room meeting for party leadership positions to be thrown open.
Should that be defeated by a simple majority of the 102 Liberal MPs and senators, it ends there. Should that motion pass – which is looking increasingly unlikely – fresh nominations will be invited.
Communications minister Mr Turnbull, who lost the party leadership to Mr Abbott in 2009, is tipped as the only possible challenger.
He’s yet to state his position, though unnamed supporters have told Fairfax newspapers he would stand if the spill motion succeeds.
Mr Turnbull’s wife Lucy told reporters staking out their Sydney home he would not be making an announcement. He may get his chance when he attends a scheduled event with Ms Bishop on Sunday.
Tasmanian Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic, an Abbott loyalist, said he had become something of a lightning rod for discussion of the leadership, talking to a significant number of fellow Liberals.
So far only one didn’t back the PM.
“I have not had a call since coming into parliament from a ministerial colleague saying I think we should change and I am your person, not one,” Mr Nikolic told AAP.
“(Opposition Leader) Bill Shorten is sitting on the good ship schadenfreude rubbing his hands in glee.”
Plenty of support
Through Saturday, a succession of government frontbenchers stepped forward to voice their backing.
Ms Bishop – whose initial comments were interpreted as equivocal – said her job as deputy was to support not change the leader.
“I don’t support a spill motion,” she said.
Treasurer Joe Hockey said the leadership team had his “absolute and unqualified support”.
“We don’t want to end up like Labor,” he said.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rejected suggestions Mr Abbott’s leadership was damaged beyond repair.
“People have written Tony Abbott off before,” he said.
“The cabinet is united behind the prime minister, the overwhelming majority of the party room, I believe is behind the prime minister.”
Business as usual
Both Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey said the government had to get on with governing – with both announcing new initiatives.
In Townsville, Mr Abbott announced the Commonwealth would provide the immigration, customs and quarantine facilities to allow the city’s airport to handle international flights from March 1.
In Sydney, Mr Hockey announced a crackdown on illicit foreign investment in real estate. It will also press ahead with the agricultural land register to show foreign ownership of farms.
Addressing the ballot, Mr Cormann said he wanted conventions to be respected.
“The precedent is that it’s a secret ballot and I’d expect that it will be a secret ballot on this occasion,” he told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Friday.
But he was clear what his position would be.
“I will be voting no against the spill,” he said.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz also backed a secret ballot.
“The party room has a secret ballot system in place, as I understand it,” he said.
“I don’t want to get into those mechanics, because I hope at the end of the day it doesn’t even get to a motion being put.”
Other ministers told the ABC they wanted a secret ballot because they did not want to be “bound” by principle of Cabinet solidarity to support Mr Abbott’s leadership.
– AAP, ABC