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Australian prime minister moves up leadership challenge

February 8, 2015

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday he has moved up a challenge to his leadership to Monday in the interests of ending uncertainty about his government’s direction.

The challenge was triggered by disgruntled government lawmakers last week and was to be discussed on Tuesday at the first scheduled meeting for the year of the ruling Liberal Party’s 102 lawmakers. But Abbott said he had arranged a special meeting for Monday morning, leaving some lawmakers scrambling to book earlier flights to the nation’s capital.

“The last thing Australia needs right now is instability and uncertainty,” Abbott said.

Abbott has come under increasing criticism from some members of his own party — which is conservative despite its name — over the government’s sagging approval ratings. Polls have slumped since May, when the government’s first annual budget was widely criticized as toughest on the poor and most vulnerable.

A polarizing figure, Abbott likes to project himself as a macho man of action, but he also has image problems, particularly among female voters.

Recently, he drew widespread criticism by making Queen Elizabeth II’s 93-year-old husband, Prince Philip, an Australian knight on Australia’s national day. Many saw it as an insult to worthy Australians.

Public dislike of Abbott has been blamed in part for big election losses for conservative governments in Victoria state in November and Queensland state last month.

If a so-called spill motion passes Monday, the positions of prime minister and his deputy, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, will be declared open. There would then be secret ballots of Liberal lawmakers to either return Abbott and Bishop or replace them.

Abbott is counting on a majority of his party colleagues defeating the motion so that the ballots don’t take place and the level of his support is not tested.

No lawmaker has yet announced he or she would be prepared to run against Abbott if the motion passed.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who led the party in opposition until he lost to the more conservative Abbott in a leadership ballot in 2009 by a single vote, is touted as the favorite to replace him. Turnbull refused to say on Sunday whether he would contest the leadership.

“The Cabinet ministers are all expected to support the prime minister on a spill motion,” Turnbull told Nine Network television, indicating that he would vote against the motion.

Government lawmakers had mixed reactions to the news that the leadership crisis would be discussed hours before Parliament is due to sit for the first time this year. Some first heard of the change through the media.

Arthur Sinodinos, a senator who is critical of Abbott and who has announced his support for the motion, said his colleagues’ decision should not be rushed. Party members “should be given time to discuss the matter at hand. Tuesday is the time to do that. It is disappointing,” Sinodinos told Fairfax Media.

Government lawmaker Teresa Gambaro issued a statement on Sunday accusing Abbott of “belligerence and hubris” and of creating “an internal climate of fear and intimidation” in the party since he became its leader more than five years ago.

Lawmakers could be influenced by an opinion poll published Sunday by News Corp. newspapers that found the government would be more popular with Turnbull at the helm, but would still trail the opposition center-left Labor Party.

The poll by market researcher Galaxy Research found that the government currently trailed Labor 57 percent to 43 percent. Under Turnbull, 49 percent of respondents would prefer the Liberals and 51 would prefer Labor. Newspapers did not publish the poll’s sample size, methodology or margin of error. They did not say when the toll was taken.

Turnbull is a multi-millionaire former merchant banker whose nickname is “The Silvertail,” an Australian term for the wealthy and influential. He supports legalizing gay marriage and lost the party leadership over his support for an emissions trading scheme.

Abbott wants to maintain Australia’s ban on same-sex marriage and is opposed to making polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. His government made good an election promise by abandoning Australia’s carbon tax last year.