CANBERRA, Australia — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday he had moved up a challenge to his own leadership to Monday in the interests of ending damaging uncertainty about his government’s future 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 over the government’s sagging approval ratings. The government has slumped in the polls since May when its first annual budget was widely criticized and toughest on the poor and most vulnerable.
The final straw came last month when Abbott 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 favourite 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.
Bishop has also said she would urge lawmakers to defeat the motion. But she won’t say whether she might challenge for the top job if the motion passed.