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Prime Minister Abbott in fight for political survival

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Less than 18 months after his conservative Liberal Party swept to power, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fighting for his political survival amid speculation that a leadership challenge will come from within his party.

     After a string of unpopular moves -- notably his recent decision to confer an Australian knighthood on Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, the country's monarch -- the prime minister has watched his approval rate plummet and unrest among his colleagues set in.

     One opinion poll this week, by Fairfax Ipsos, put Abbott's approval rating at just 29%. Only 31% of voters expected him to be prime minister at the next election, which will be held before the end of 2016.

     If his political demise comes before Australians return to the polls, Abbott would become the third prime minister since 2010 to be voted out by his colleagues between elections.

     Under Australia's political system, voters elect local representatives rather than directly selecting a prime minister, though party leaders are undoubtedly the main faces of election campaigns.

     During a term of government, ruling party members of parliament can challenge the prime minister by way of an internal ballot if they are unhappy with his or her leadership.

     In 2010, Labor MPs overthrew Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Three years later, they did the same to his replacement Julia Gillard, a move that resulted in Rudd returning to the role. Both were removed amid unfavorable pre-election opinion polls.

     While no challenge against Abbott has yet been mounted, a heavy backlash against a conservative ally in state government elections in Queensland on Saturday has increased pressure on the prime minister.

     Australian media reported yesterday that foreign minister Julie Bishop had refused to rule out a challenge to Abbott's leadership during a face-to-meeting with him on Sunday.

     In a subsequent interview, Abbott dodged questions about that meeting, saying such issues were "boring" and "insider Canberra stuff." But the pressure -- played up on the front pages of newspapers across the nation -- has been obvious.

     "There's no doubt there is an insurgency against Tony Abbott under foot, with a group of people determined to bring down the prime minister and secure a new leader," veteran political commentator Paul Kelly said on television on Monday.

     Abbott, an academic prize winner and committed monarchist who once studied to be a priest, led the Liberal Party to victory in September 2013, defeating a divided and demoralized Labor Party by 90 seats to 55. The Liberals govern in a coalition with the Nationals, a smaller conservative party that is a long time political partner.

     Even before 57-year-old Abbott took office, Malcolm Fraser, Liberal Prime Minister from 1975 to 1983, dubbed him a "dangerous" politician, and accused the party of moving to the extreme right.

     Criticism of Abbott's first budget, the government's treatment of asylum seekers and proposed reforms that would increase the cost of medical care have contributed to the prime minister's poor approval rating.

     Many of Abbott's planned cuts to spending have been unpopular. A study by the Australian National University last year said many of the changes introduced by his government had targeted unemployed young people and single parents.

Leadership 'spills'

In the face of intense criticism, Abbott used an address to the National Press Club of Australia on Monday to remind his parliamentary colleagues that the people should decide who leads the country, not them.

     "I like my colleagues, I respect my colleagues, I trust my colleagues above all else ... the last thing any of them would want to do is make a difficult situation worse," he said. "[It's] the people that hire and frankly, it's the people that should fire."

     But that is not always how the Australian system works -- as the recent experiences of Labor Party leaders have shown. Many earlier party leaders have been the victim of what Australians call a "spill," including Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, replaced in 1991 by Paul Keating after eight years in office. Abbott was himself elected in a 2009 Liberal spill that turfed out former leader Malcolm Turnbull.

     Commentators say that Turnbull, now Communications Minister, could make a comeback, replacing Abbott in a Liberal reshuffle that would also see social services minister Scott Morrison promoted to replace treasurer Joe Hockey. Morrison orchestrated a controversial refugee deal with Cambodia while immigration minister last year.

     However, such a shake-up could be fraught with danger for the government. Turnbull is popular with many voters, but not with the Liberal right wing, while Bishop is thought to have performed poorly during a spell as shadow treasurer.

     "The fear is that Turnbull cannot unite the conservative side of politics, that Bishop lacks the economic mastery to succeed and that Morrison is too inexperienced for the top job," Kelly wrote in The Australian newspaper.

     Criticism of Abbott has intensified since his decision to knight Prince Philip on Jan. 26, Australia's national day.

     According to the Fairfax Ipsos poll, only a quarter of people support Abbott's decision last year to reintroduce the titles knight and dame at the apex of the Order of Australia, the honors system that replaced British honors in Australia in 1975. A staggering 74% opposed the decision to knight the prince.

     That decision, Abbott said, was one he made alone; a "captain's call" he said. Questions about his political judgment swiftly followed, including criticism from media mogul Rupert Murdoch and conservative columnists who are usually sympathetic to Liberal prime ministers.

     Many believe that the knighthood was also a factor in the electoral upset in Queensland, where conservative premier Campbell Newman led a Liberal National Party government. The LNP is a state party affiliated to both the Liberal Party and the Nationals. 

     In a huge backlash, Newman lost his seat and his party looks set to lose the election, less than three years after it stormed to power by winning 78 seats to Labor's seven. The LNP's best hope is a parliament in which no party has a majority.

     "[It was] one of the most extraordinary elections in Australian history," noted Kelly. Voters, he said, had shown they would not tolerate broken promises, in a lesson for all governments in Australia, not just Abbott's.

Sitting duck

Malcolm Mackerras, a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra, said Abbott had played a lead role in sinking Newman's government.

     "He wrecked the Liberal National Party in Queensland," he said. "The LNP would have enjoyed a comfortable victory. Abbott's getting a lot of the blame for that and quite rightly."

     While Abbott may appear to some to be a sitting duck, the MPs linked to a possible coup have at times supported their leader this week. Morrison, for example, said the government had made "significant achievements" ... from a policy perspective.

     "The prime minister has my support," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., adding that the government would keep focusing on growing the economy. The Australian currency fell to a five-year low of $0.77 on Jan. 30, reflecting slowing economic growth.

     Ominously for Abbott, Mackerras said the removal of prime ministers by their colleagues since 2010 had been "almost entirely a reaction to opinion polls." However, he said a change in the Liberal leadership was likely to be delayed until next year.

     "I don't think they will replace Abbott this year. I think they have a lot of goodwill for him," Mackerras said. "The polls will keep on being bad. Although Liberal voters would prefer to keep Abbott or replace him with Bishop, the general public prefer Turnbull ... and Turnbull would have a better chance of taking them to victory next year."

     Bishop has dismissed suggestions that she is mounting a challenge, but did not rule out supporting someone else's bid to change the leader. "I am not campaigning for the job. I am not ringing the backbench asking for support," she said, referring to MPs outside Abbott's cabinet.

     But Abbott is feeling the heat from some backbenchers, two of whom are openly calling for a leadership spill. As that call threatens to come to a head, Labor leader Bill Shorten is claiming that Abbott's days are numbered.

     "We heard a desperate speech from a politically drowning man aimed at pleasing his MPs, but nothing for Australian families," he said of Abbott's address to the press club.

     Others also criticized the prime minister's speech for lacking vision. But it was clear that his sights are set on staying put -- and that he recognizes the damage done to his political prospects by the knighthood affair.

     "I probably overdid it on awards and that's why, as of today, I make it crystal clear that all awards in the Order of Australia will be wholly and solely the province of the Council of the Order of Australia," he said. The council is an independent body that has previously considered nominations for awards other than knighthoods and damehoods.

     "I have listened, I have learned, I have acted," Abbott added. Either way, he will discover shortly whether he has listened in time and whether his actions will be enough to save him.

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