Abbott ditches signature policy as his disapproval soars

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been dealt another bad poll result on the day of his National Press Club speech. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott will finally and reluctantly declare his dream of a “bigger, better” paid parental leave (PPL) scheme is “off the table”, in a speech that has become crucial to staving off the mounting pressure on his leadership.

After Saturday’s devastating Queensland election rout, federal backbenchers will be further unnerved by Monday’s Fairfax/Ipsos poll showing Abbott’s disapproval has risen ten points since December to 67%. His approval is down nine points to 29% and he trails Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister 34-50%. Shorten’s lead has widened by eight points over the summer. The Coalition is behind Labor 46-54% in two party terms.

Both Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, touted as possible replacements, declared their support for the embattled Abbott. But some Liberal sources said his leadership was now terminal, with just the timing a question mark.

Monday’s National Press Club address has taken on an importance never contemplated when Abbott undertook the engagement, with the bar set almost impossibly high.

Abbott will say his policy priorities for the year include a families package, a small business and jobs package, further strengthening the national security laws and reforms to the operation of the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Trying to clear away “barnacles” late last year, Abbott said he would scale back and better target his proposed PPL, as part of a families package focused on child care.

Abbott will say on Monday: “I admire stay-at-home mums –– as Margie was when our children were young – but still firmly believe in the need for a better paid parental leave scheme to maximise my daughters’ choices to have a career and to have a family too.

"Still, I accept that what’s desirable is not always doable especially when times are tough and budgets are tight.

"We sought the advice of the Productivity Commission and I have listened to the feedback from my colleagues and from mums and dads around Australia – and they have said that, with our current budget constraints, the better focus now is on childcare if we want higher participation and a stronger economy.

"So a bigger, better PPL scheme is off the table.”

Abbott took the PPL to two elections but it has been a running sore with colleagues. The multi-billion policy, to be financed by a levy on big companies, was originally one of his notorious “captain’s picks”. It was announced before going to the party room and later became symbolic of his capricious style.

Abbott will say on Monday that the most important consideration of all is what will best help families at this time. “I know that many women are working just to pay the childcare – because that was the Abbott family’s experience when Margie first went back to work after she became a mother.

"More affordable and more available childcare means more parents can choose to return to work or to spend more time at work.”

Abbott will say women are Australia’s most under-used source of skills and entrepreneurship – if female participation was 6% higher, at Canada’s level, GDP would be higher by A$25 billion a year.

“So a better childcare policy is good economic policy as well as fairer family policy.”

The government will set out and then consult widely on a major families package over the next few months, ahead of the budget.

Abbott will say the package’s focus will be to reform the present confusing system of multiple childcare support payments and to provide more money in parents’ pockets to help them with their child care costs when they want to go back to work.

Abbott on Sunday said that he regretted his Prince Philip knighthood had caused a distraction in the final week of the Queensland campaign.

Abbott said the government would learn the lesson from the Queensland result, which was “not to give up on reform, but to make sure that everything you propose is fully explained and well justified”.

Abbott accepted his government had had some difficulties and made some mistakes. “But in the end, government is not a popularity contest – it is a competence contest.”

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