PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has received a “kick up the bum” from his Liberal party colleagues this week over persistent flaws in his leadership style.
But the embattled leader has earned the right to continue on and achieve political atonement, says Victorian Nationals MP Darren Chester.
On Monday, a spill motion on whether a leadership vote would be held in the Liberal party room was defeated 61 votes to 39 at a specially convened meeting in Canberra.
The motion resulted after a tense fortnight where speculation about Mr Abbott’s immediate future escalated dramatically following public mocking of his controversial decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day.
Less than a week later, the LNP’s poor showing at the Queensland State election with a huge swing to Labor rubbed salt into Mr Abbott’s already exposed political wounds.
How low can he go?
Ahead of Monday’s party room crisis vote, new polling results confirmed the Prime Minister’s record low popularity, with Labor rated well ahead - 57 to 43 - in the two-party preferred category.
The Newspoll result, which coincided with parliament’s first sitting week of 2015, favoured Communications Minister and former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull as preferred Prime Minister over Mr Abbott by 64 per cent to 25pc.
Mr Turnbull defeated Mr Abbott for the Liberal leadership in 2009 and was touted as a potential candidate if the spill motion succeeded - along with foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop - but that scenario was avoided.
Despite the spill motion being defeated, many political analysts believe the 39 votes indicate Mr Abbott’s future remains in grave doubt and a change of leader is inevitable.
But Mr Chester said rural MPs and other elected representatives needed to acknowledge an increasingly volatile electorate existed now - both in metropolitan areas and regional areas - and “you need to be at the top of your game, all the time”.
“If the public thinks that you’re not listening to them or not responding to their concerns they will mark you down very quickly,” he said.
“There’s less rusted-on loyalty to an individual political party now than at any time in anyone’s living memory, and that means individual MPs and leaders need to be very finely attuned to the mood of the electorate and listen to their concerns and make sure we’re focusing on the national interest.
“I think the PM himself has indicated himself he was chastened by the fact there was a spill motion.
“The backbench has now flexed its muscles and indicated to the Prime Minister that he needed to change a few things.
“I think he’s heard the message and he’s now going to be given the opportunity to fix things.
“I’d say the Prime Minister has been given a kick up the bum and what he should be given now is a fair go and a chance to respond to the legitimate concerns that have been raised with him.”
Mr Chester said he also believed Mr Abbott was a “formidable politician” and anyone who underestimated did so “at their own peril”. He said in 2009 the Labor party laughed when he was appointed Coalition leader - but then he almost won the 2010 election and went on to win in 2013.
“I think what you’ll see now is this Prime Minister, with his back to the wall, will be at his best,” he said.
“And I’m very confident that we in the National Party can work with him to deliver for regional Australia.”
Unconditional support from Nats
The Nationals backed Mr Abbott’s leadership unanimously in the lead-up to this week’s spill motion.
Mr Chester said the National Party had built a very strong relationship with Mr Abbott over five years, “based on mutual respect, trust and loyalty”.
“The Nationals were rock solid throughout this whole process, we supported Tony Abbott’s prime ministership because we believe he has the right and has earned that opportunity to turn things around,” he said.
“Let’s be realists, the polls aren’t very good for us at the moment – but John Howard faced similar polling circumstances in 2001 and recovered.
“I’m optimistic and I’m confident we can turn things around. But at the end of the day, when people do the score sheet and they figure out what we’ve done well and what we’ve done badly, I’m think we’ll end up in the positives in 18 months’ time at the next federal election.”
Mr Chester said “we don’t need a new PM; we need to unite behind the one we’ve got”.
“The mood seemed to change in the last 72 hours when people contacting my office were saying, ‘ok the Liberal party has had its fun, they’ve given this bloke a whack, now give him a fair go’.
“And I think we need to give him a fair go - he’s earned the right to finish the job and now it’s up to his colleagues to unite behind him and I know I’ll be supporting him.”
Listen to the grass roots
Liberal Hume MP Angus Taylor said the 39-61 result of the spill motion vote in his party room on Monday sent two clear messages.
The first message was that the “vast majority” of the Liberal party room didn’t want to spill the leadership and second was that the PM and his office “need to listen to the grass roots”.
Mr Taylor said the vast majority of Liberal MPs were more interested in sending a signal that the government needs to adopt a new approach to governing as opposed to actually changing the leadership “and that message has been heard loud and clear”.
He said Mr Abbott immediately announced changes that are “more than symbolic” including the future method of policy formulation and engaging more with backbenchers.
“I think they are the right changes,” he said.
“My observation of the Prime Minister is that this has been a near-death experience and he’s really adapting to it and he does; that’s Tony’s history,” he said.
Mr Taylor rejected a suggestion Mr Abbott was on his last chance.
One of the key messages from the Prime Minister has been that the voters elect the Prime Minister and changing leaders, like the former Labor government did, would be political suicide.
Mr Taylor said politics had changed dramatically in recent years in Australia and throughout the world and losing touch with voters was the key issue
“I’ve been an observer and now a participant in politics and the truth of it is the grass roots are far more powerful now than they were years ago, because they’ve got megaphones,” he said.
“You have to really listen to what’s going on at the coal face - and of course in the parliament the coal face is represented by ... backbenchers for the most part, because we are out in our electorates most of the time.”
Mr Abbott said he accepted the last few weeks have been difficult weeks for the government, "but they’ve also been difficult weeks for the Australian people because the people expect and deserve a government which is getting on with the job".
“I am confident that we have put this time behind us," he said.
I am confident that what we have shown the Australian people is that we have looked over the precipice and we have decided that we are not going to go down the Labor Party path of a damaged, divided, dysfunctional government which votes no confidence in itself.
“Our focus this year will be on jobs and families. It will be on a strong economy and a secure nation.
“We start in the next few months with the families’ package that I’ve been talking about with the small business and jobs package, which will focus on a tax cut for small business.
“This is what the Australian people want. They want a government which is focused on them, not on itself, and that's what I am determined to deliver.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the spill was not just about leadership, but about the government’s values and budget being wrong.
“The Liberal Party of Australia need to stop worrying about which of their captains they throw overboard and just throw their unfair Budget overboard," he said.
“It’s not about which Liberal is in charge of this mess, it’s about cutting pensions, it’s about a GP Tax, it’s about $100,000 degrees for university students.
“It’s broken promises and lies, it’s not the particular salesperson.”
Mr Shorten said the spill motion result indicated that 39 Liberals have decided “they’ve had enough of Tony Abbott”.
“The real question is, can Australia trust the Liberal Party?” he said.
“The Liberal Party are divided, that’s clear. They can’t govern themselves so how can they govern the nation?
“The real question here is, can anyone trust Tony Abbott or his team, who for a year and half have stolen 521 days of Australia’s time to waste it on an unfair Budget which is going nowhere fast.”
Get on with business
SA Liberal Senator Sean Edwards – who voted against the spill motion – said it was now time to get on with the business of governing the country and holding Labor to account for the nation’s budget position.
Senator Edwards said his party was now, “Looking forward to getting on with governing”.
“The Prime Minister has heard what his party room has had to say – it’s been a long hard road - but we will now do a better job at communicating policy and our achievements,” he said.
Senator Edwards said the government’s immediate task was to get back to work.
“I’ve just told my people it’s ‘business as usual’ and let’s get on with it now - we’ve got to drive reforms,” he said.
“The outcome (of the spill motion) is what it is.
“I wasn’t pleased it was occurring but that was my position.”
Queensland Nationals MP Keith Pitt said residents who contacted his Hinkler office last week were evenly divided in their views about whether Mr Abbott should remain Prime Minister.
“Some thought unfavourable poll results and recent decisions made by Mr Abbott had made his position untenable," he said. Others indicated they didn’t want the Coalition to lower itself to Labor’s standards.
“The spill motion was defeated in the Liberal party room this morning, and now it’s time for the Coalition to get on with the job that voters elected us to do.
“As a member of The Nationals, I am focused on continuing to deliver outcomes for regional Australia.
“The Nationals remain a steadfast and united team; having had just 12 leaders in 95 years.
“Tony Abbott has said that the Coalition leadership team will be consultative; and Health Minister Sussan Ley’s visit to Hinkler last week to meet with local doctors was certainly a positive sign.”