Australian PM Tony Abbott survives bid to unseat him, vows change

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and fellow Liberal MPs arriving for a special Liberal party room meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and fellow Liberal MPs arriving for a special Liberal party room meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on Feb 9, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday survived a confidence vote on his leadership after just 17 months in power, despite a disastrous new poll showing his popularity plunging.Mr Abbott vowed to change after surviving the vote, while urging an end to the disunity that has seen the government’s popularity plummet.  He has been fighting for his job after poor poll ratings and a series of policy backflips spurred some MPs from his conservative Liberal Party to openly attack him, calling last week for a leadership “spill”.  

The motion aimed to declare vacant the positions of party leader and deputy leader, occupied by Mr Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  If it had succeeded, the party room – Liberal Party members of both houses of parliament – could have voted for new candidates.  But the 101 Liberal parliamentarians – one was absent – rejected the proposal by 61 to 39 in a secret ballot. One vote was discarded for either being incorrectly completed or not filled in at all.  In a brief televised statement, Mr Abbott called for the party to end “disunity and uncertainty” and move forward.  “The Liberal Party has dealt with the spill motion and now this matter is behind us,” he said.  “We are absolutely determined to work for you, the people who elected us. We want to end the disunity and the uncertainty which destroyed two Labor governments and give you the good government that you deserve.”Labor switched leaders twice during its time in power from 2007 to 2013, with Mr Abbott highly critical at the time.Mr Abbott said that “when you elect a government, when you elect a prime minister, you deserve to keep that government and that prime minister until you have a chance to change your mind”.  He admitted in a later press conference that the government had “bitten off more than we could chew” in trying to rein in a growing budget deficit by slashing health and education spending while tightening welfare, moves condemned as too harsh.  “I have listened, I have learnt, and I have changed and the government will change with me,” he said, vowing to be more “consultative and collegial”.Mr Abbott initially refused to be drawn on whether he planned to reshuffle his cabinet, with Treasurer Joe Hockey widely seen as a potential fall guy. But he later told parliament: “I stand by my treasurer. I stand by my team.”Mr Abbott, 57, survived despite waking to a dire Newspoll in The Australian broadsheet, and the vote outcome is unlikely to end speculation about his future.  The poll showed the ruling Liberal-National coalition trails the Labor opposition on a two-party basis 43 percent to 57 percent, while 68 percent of the 1,178 people interviewed were dissatisfied with Mr Abbott’s performance.  His popularity lags far behind Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Ms Bishop, both touted as potential leadership contenders, but who have not formally put their hand up as an alternative prime minister.  Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten said the government was “in paralysis”.