The rout of the Liberal National Party in the Queensland election is being described as “catastrophic” by federal Coalition MPs, with some claiming the Prime Minister is now terminally wounded.
“All we are talking about now is the timing and method of execution,” one Queensland MP said.
“This is catastrophic, unimaginable,” said another.
Labor looks set to pull off a stunning victory in a cliffhanger election, after securing a double-digit swing that has ended the political career of Premier Campbell Newman.
Labor is on track to claim 45 or 46 of the 89 seats in the state’s parliament, after going into the poll holding only nine seats.
“My political career is over,” Mr Newman told LNP supporters as he conceded defeat in his seat.
A senior federal Coalition source said the next move was Tony Abbott’s.
“So far the chatter has been among privates and corporals,” he said.
“It’s a time for generals now. And a time for the general: Tony Abbott. He has to decide what’s in the best interest of the party.”
The ABC spoke to Coalition MPs and senators across the country, as all watched the most remarkable turnaround in Australian electoral history with growing disbelief and horror.
Liberal MP Jane Prentice said the party “can’t continue as we are” and that Tony Abbott was “not taking the people with us”.
Ms Prentice, the federal member for Ryan in the south-western suburbs of Brisbane, made the comments while appearing on ABC TV’s Queensland election panel.
“Tony has said he has listened and learned. He is making a keynote speech on Monday at the Press Club, but we can’t continue as we are,” she said.
“I think that’s the lesson from today.”
Mal Brough reportedly urged to challenge for leadership
A Coalition minister said all eyes would now be on federal and state LNP MPs, who he feared would unload on the weakened Prime Minister in the wake of the Queensland poll.
A number suggested former Howard government minister Mal Brough was the one most likely to break ranks and take aim at Mr Abbott.
Fairfax Media reported Mr Brough was being urged to challenge Mr Abbott, to bring the leadership chatter to a head.
Other MPs said he would simply make a statement that laid part of the blame for the loss at the federal leader’s feet, adding to the momentum building against him.
Mr Brough did not respond when contacted by the ABC.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said the Queensland election was a “terrible result” but cautioned restive federal Coalition MPs against repeating the mistakes of the past.
“If you behave like the Labor Party at the last election, you will be treated like the Labor Party at the last election, and you will be annihilated,” Mr Joyce said.
“You don’t usurp the right of the Australian people. They don’t like it.”
Another MP said that the party’s only choice was to make a change or risk the same fate that befell the Coalition governments of Queensland and Victoria.
There would only be three credible candidates to replace Mr Abbott as leader: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop; Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull; and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.
None of these contenders had been agitating for change, or courting numbers.
Although Ms Bishop was touted as the most likely to take over, there was an emerging consensus Mr Turnbull had the best chance of recovering the Coalition’s position; because he had the most fully formed public image.
It had been suggested the Prime Minister was safe because there were three contenders, because it was assumed they would fight among themselves for the top job.
However, the three were quite close and it was possible they could come to a consensus on who should lead.
Preferred option for Tony Abbott to stand down
The strong suggestion in the wake of the Queensland vote was that none of them would launch a challenge, as the preferred option was for Mr Abbott to stand down.
“I think the first response has to come from him,” one senior Coalition MP said.
“He has to, in his mind, resolve what is in the best interest of the party and the country.”
But if that decision was to stay on as leader, then the party would have to respond to it, he said, which suggested the Prime Minister’s future was no longer his decision alone.
The National Party MPs and senators do not get a vote in a Liberal leadership ballot and one said the party would not countenance anything that smelled of chaos.
If there was a messy leadership spill it might threaten the Coalition, he said.
The Prime Minister is preparing for a major speech on Monday, which is supposed to set out the Government’s agenda for the year.
Now it looms as another exercise in damage control.
News Limited papers reported Mr Abbott was preparing to dump his signature paid parental leave scheme as a sign he was willing to listen and make compromise.
Asked about the policy, Mr Abbott said: “Look, I said before Christmas, we’d be scaling it back … I’ll have a bit more to say on PPL in the next day or so”.
One MP said if Mr Abbott did not dump the policy in his speech on Monday, he would be carried out of the Press Club “in a box”.