SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Sunday said his government had "lessons to learn" from a stunning state election rout in Queensland, amid growing questions about his leadership after his unpopular move to knight Britain's Prince Philip.
Rumours of challenges to Mr Abbott's position as prime minister have emerged over the past week after the knighthood decision, but the demise of the Liberal-National coalition (LNP) in Queensland elections held last Saturday has piled further pressure on the Australian leader.
The LNP, which is also the ruling coalition nationally, swept to victory in Queensland three years ago to record the state's biggest-ever parliamentary triumph when it took out 78 of 89 seats.
But in one of the most shocking turnarounds in the nation's political history, the opposition Labor party - written off after the last election - appeared close to returning to power in the north-eastern state as vote counting continued.
"There are obviously lessons in the election result last night and we're determined to learn them in Canberra," Mr Abbott told reporters, adding that he regretted the "distraction" of the knighthood debate.
"I accept that we've had some difficulties. I accept that we need to learn from the difficulties that we've had, but in the end, government is not a popularity contest, it is a competence contest."
Mr Abbott's government has seen its support plunge in opinion polls over the past year, coming under fire for its attempts to push through widespread spending cuts to rein in a growing budget deficit.
Mr Abbott, an enthusiastic royalist, reintroduced the titles of dame and knight in Australia last year but the move was criticised as being out of step with the public and "near impossible" to explain to ordinary Australians.
His decision to knight Queen Elizabeth II's husband Philip attracted widespread ridicule, with even unnamed politicians within Mr Abbott's own LNP reportedly describing the move as "stupid".
Reports that a leadership challenge could be on the cards have revived memories of the political turmoil that swept Australian politics when former prime minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010.
Mr Rudd returned to power in 2013 in the three months before his Labor party lost the election to Mr Abbott's coalition, which had campaigned against what it said was the then government's chaos and dysfunction.
Attorney-General George Brandis said on Sunday his party would be "crazy" to attempt a similar leadership change.
"There is no widespread appetite in the Liberal Party for a leadership change," Mr Brandis told Sky News.
"We would be crazy to repeat the experience of the last Labor government, which failed because it tore down an elected leader, and the Liberal Party won't be doing that."