SYDNEY (AFP) – Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday he would bring forward by 24 hours a party vote on whether to oust him, as Australia faced a possible leadership change for the fourth time in five years.
Abbott has been fighting for his job after poor poll ratings and a series of policy backflips spurred some MPs from his conservative Liberal Party openly to attack him, calling for a leadership “spill” on Tuesday.
The motion aims to declare the positions of party leader and deputy leader – currently occupied by Abbott and Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop – vacant so the party room, or members of both houses of parliament, can vote for new candidates.
But a defiant Abbott declared he wanted the vote over and done with as soon as possible.
“The last thing Australia needs right now is instability and uncertainty,” he told reporters.
“On reflection, and after talking to my colleagues, I’ve decided that the best thing we can do is deal with the spill motion as quickly as possible and put it behind us.”
The meeting of the governing Liberal Party will be held on Monday morning, 24 hours earlier than scheduled, the Australian leader said. “The only question for our party is do we want to reduce ourselves to the level of the Labor Party in dragging down a first-term prime minister,” he added.
Abbott was highly critical of Labor when the party switched leaders twice during its time in power from 2007 to 2013.
Prime minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010. He later returned the favour and stormed back to power in 2013 shortly before losing the election to Abbott’s coalition.
Abbott’s comments came just hours after Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seen as one of the main contenders for the leadership, broke his silence early Sunday.
“I’m in the cabinet, I support the prime minister,” Turnbull, who once lost a leadership tussle with Abbott by one vote when the Liberals were in opposition, told a Channel Ten reporter.
“You don’t have to keep on saying that all the time.”
But Turnbull did not say if he would stand as a candidate if the spill motion was successful and the leader’s position declared vacant.
Another potential candidate – Abbott’s deputy Bishop, who is also the foreign minister – said last week she opposed a spill but did not elaborate on what she would do if the motion was successful. “I’m talking to my colleagues today,” Bishop would only say Sunday when questioned by reporters about her plans.
Treasurer Joe Hockey said cabinet members who did not support Abbott should resign, noting to Sky News, “Under the Westminster system, if you do not support the prime minister, you cannot serve in his or her cabinet.”
Backbencher Arthur Sinodinos said he was unhappy with Abbott’s decision to bring forward the vote. “I will vote for a spill as that will help precipitate a discussion,” Sinodinos told The Sydney Morning Herald.
His views were echoed by some other backbenchers on and off the record to local media Sunday amid frustration that MPs were not being given enough time to discuss the challenge.
Since being elected in September 2013, Abbott’s government has sealed free trade deals with China, South Korea and Japan.
It killed off controversial carbon and mining taxes and sharply reduced the number of asylum-seeker boats arriving in Australia.