Australian PM Abbott stays defiant as some MPs call for leadership vote

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday brushed off a growing threat to his leadership after several backbenchers publicly called for an internal party vote on the top job. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday brushed off a growing threat to his leadership after several backbenchers publicly called for an internal party vote on the top job. -- PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday brushed off a growing threat to his leadership after several backbenchers publicly called for an internal party vote on the top job.

Pressure has mounted on Mr Abbott following a controversial decision to make Britain's Prince Philip a knight, and a handful of MPs late on Tuesday disavowed the conservative leader.

West Australian Dennis Jensen was the first to say Mr Abbott should go. "I don't think the leader and his office are listening and communicating effectively," Mr Jensen told ABC television. "I believe that it is necessary that this is brought to a head and lanced."

Queensland MP Warren Entsch reportedly said "something has got to come to a head" and he would seek a resolution of festering leadership tensions when the Liberal Party meets on Tuesday Feb 10.

Former minister Mal Brough, another Queensland MP, also broke ranks, telling Sky News: "I don't have unequivocal support for the prime minister today."

He added: "The matter needs to be resolved and if Tuesday is the appropriate time for people to talk about it ... then it's for them to say so."

But he ruled out challenging Mr Abbott.

The Prime Minister on Wednesday brushed off the revolt as just a sign of a "robust" Liberal Party.

"We've always had a robust party room, and I hope that will always continue," Mr Abbott told Macquarie Radio.

"What I think everyone in the party room understands is that the last thing we should do is go anywhere near reproducing the rabble of the Labor years," he said, in a reference to the switching of leaders under the previous Labor government.

Mr Abbott said on Monday he had not contemplated stepping down when the leadership issue erupted after severe criticism of his decision to to make Britain's Prince Philip a knight on Australia Day, Jan 26.

He was ridiculed after naming the nonagenarian consort of Queen Elizabeth II a knight of the Order of Australia, and incensed MPs who were already dealing with falling poll numbers, policy backflips and an unpopular budget.

The leadership debate follows a dismal result in a Queensland state election, which still hangs in the balance, but which delivered a huge swing against the ruling conservative administration that many blamed on federal issues.

Despite the leadership speculation, Treasurer Joe Hockey led ministers lining up to support Mr Abbott on Wednesday.

He said there were more than 100 members in the Liberal party room but only a handful had spoken out against Mr Abbott.

Media reports, however, suggest as many as 30 to 40 MPs could back a leadership change.

"The Cabinet is unanimous in its support for the Prime Minister," Mr Hockey told reporters.

"I can understand that various members of parliament have grievances... but we have an obligation to be united and to provide stable government."