Embattled Australian PM weathers political storm




By Jill Fraser

MELBOURNE, Australia (AA) - Australia’s most senior ministers swung behind beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Abbott Wednesday, publicly voicing their support and fending off criticism of his policies and style.

A host of Liberal Party heavyweights took to the airwaves and the press to stand up for their embattled leader.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told ABC Radio that Abbott had the "strong and unanimous support of the cabinet" while Treasurer Joe Hockey said Abbott was the victim of the political media.

"You don't try and bring down a prime minister because of a knighthood for Prince Phillip," Hockey said, in reference to Abbott’s much-disparaged decision to honor the Queen’s consort last month.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce blamed the current political turmoil on "a full moon."

However, former Victoria state premier Jeff Kennett, a heavyweight in Abbott’s ruling Liberal Party, described Abbott’s leadership as “terminal.”

Abbott has faced increased criticism and ridicule over his leadership and his “captain’s call” decision-making -- from knighting Prince Philip to a U-turn over paid parental leave.

The prime minister has even acquired his own social media hashtag -- #ToxicTony.

Talking on ABC News, Kennett said the leadership issue “needs to be resolved as quickly as possible so that the party can move on.”

Kennett said even the party’s conservative supporters were offering unsolicited comments “that we're just going nowhere.”

Abbott’s personal popularity has plummeted in recent weeks. A Galaxy poll published in News Corp newspapers on Sunday put his rating at 27 per cent with opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten on 44 percent.

Polls on Australians’ preference for prime minister have unanimously put Abbott at the back of the field.

He has also come under fire from his own backbenches in the federal House of Representatives with three lawmakers withdrawing their support Tuesday night.

Dennis Jensen was first to break ranks. He told ABC’s 7.30 program that he no longer backed Abbott and called on him to step down. He was followed by Warren Entsch and Mal Brough.

Their remarks were dismissed by Abbott loyalists such as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who inferred the criticism came from disgruntled MPs who had missed out on promotion.

However, senior Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos added fuel to the fire when he told Sky News his support for Abbott was “not unconditional.”

Sinodinos, a former chief of staff to ex-Premier John Howard, said his support was “based on being able to grapple with the issues we face at the moment, which appear to have impacted on our standing in the polls.”

On Monday, Abbott survived a speech to the National Press Club that had been billed as one that would make or break his career.

He warned his party colleagues against “infighting” and promised to lead a much more consultative government.

Abbott has shrugged off criticism of broken promises and an austerity-focused budget for months.

In December, he compared himself to conservative icons Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who also suffered in the opinion polls but ultimately rebounded.

His decision to bestow a knighthood on Prince Philip -- perceived to be at the expense of a deserving Australian -- seemed the final straw for most and there was a rapid fall in his approval rating after the Jan. 26 announcement.

If deposed, Abbott’s most likely replacements will be either Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Bishop has ruled out challenging Abbott and Turnbull’s office today office denied he was trying to canvas support and secure numbers.


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