Tony Abbott has appealed to his Liberal colleagues to show “character” and not “give in to short-term fear and make a difficult situation worse”.
In an appearance billed as vital for his immediate political future, the prime minister told the National Press Club he had not considered resigning the leadership. It was the people that hired prime ministers, Abbott said, and “frankly it’s the people that should fire”.
Making concessions to an alarmed party, Abbott promised more consultation with both community and backbench and said the awarding of knighthoods would no longer be his personal preserve.
Abbott also effectively ruled out advocating at the election a change of the GST in a second term.
Asked if he still had the confidence of the party room, Abbott said “yes”.
The government had had “a rough couple of months”, Abbott said, but “when things are difficult the last thing you want to do is to make your difficulties worse”.
“This will be a test of character. Now politicians pass the test when they do what is best for the long term, not when they give in to short-term fear and make a difficult situation worse.”
“You can buckle down to business or not” in a bad patch, but failing to buckle down always worsened things, he said. “So that’s the conversation I’ve had with many of my colleagues.”
Abbott wouldn’t rule out making future “captain’s picks” in situations such as the downing of flight MH17, but said the captain’s picks that people had found difficult – the paid parental leave (PPL) policy and his nominating of knights and dames – had been reversed.
The PPL won’t go ahead, and the future conferring of knighthoods will be “entirely” in the hands of the Council for the Order of Australia, rather than Abbott himself.
“I accept that I probably overdid it on awards,” Abbott admitted.
But Queenland Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming said Abbott’s handing over responsibility to the council was “inadequate” and he would introduce a private member’s bill to abolish knights and dames from the honours.
“Today’s announcement has failed to address the concerns and feelings of the electorate-at-large,” Laming said.
In a show of support for their embattled leader, the address was attended by a bevy of senior ministers, including Treasurer Joe Hockey, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Attorney-General George Brandis. Abbott’s wife Margie was also there.
While Abbott has dumped the PPL in favour of concentrating on child care, he has not clarified the future of the levy on big businesses that was to pay for it. Business will be very critical if the levy goes ahead.
Promising a small business and jobs package, Abbott said at its heart would be a small-business company tax cut on July 1 at least as big as the 1.5% already flagged.
Abbott wanted the government’s white paper process for reforming the federation and taxation “to demonstrate Australians’ potential for change for the better rather than just politics as usual”.
But the base and rate of the GST – seen by many experts as being at the heart of tax reform – “won’t change this term or next unless it’s supported by the likes of [Opposition Leader] Bill Shorten and the Labor premiers”. Given Labor’s opposition, this puts the kibosh on change.
Abbott said the government would soon put in place better scrutiny and reporting of foreign purchases of agricultural land – of particular importance to the Nationals – and better enforcement of the rules against foreign purchases of existing homes so that young people were not priced out of the market.
Abbott flagged that the May budget would not be as harsh as last year’s, saying “because we have done much of the hard work already, we won’t need to protect the Commonwealth budget at the expense of the household budget”.
On national security, Abbott said that if dealing with Hizb ut-Tahrir and others who nurtured extremism in the suburbs required more legislation, “we will bring it on”.
Using the infamous phrase that got Julia Gillard into so much trouble, he re-affirmed “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. Some interpreted this as a dig at Malcolm Turnbull, a leadership alternative, whose support for a carbon price triggered his replacement by Abbott. Both Turnbull and Julie Bishop, the other alternative canvassed if Abbott’s position collapsed, have said he has their support.
One of the things that would make 2015 a little different from 2014 “is a much more consultative and collegial cabinet process, more meetings of the full ministry, regular meetings between the cabinet and the chairs of the backbench policy committees”, Abbott said.
“I believe it’s always been a consultative and collegial government, but it will certainly be the most consultative and collegial government this country has ever seen” in the period ahead, Abbott said.
Shorten said if Abbott was prepared to give up his signature policy of PPL, what could he be trusted on?