Bring on a leadership vote next week: Liberal backbencher

Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen said Tony Abbott ‘is not capable of making the transition to prime minister’ from opposition. AAP/Alan Porritt

West Australian Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen has urged the Liberals to hold a leadership vote next week, declaring Tony Abbott is not an effective leader and his position is “terminal”.

Jensen told The Conversation he had texted Abbott on January 23 – before the knighthood announcement – notifying Abbott that he no longer had his support.

Abbott had been “an extraordinarily effective opposition leader” but he “is not capable of making the transition to prime minister”, Jensen said. “Abbott was a good wartime leader but he is not a good peacetime leader – and it’s time to win the peace.”

Jensen said a vote next week, when MPs return to Canberra for the start of the parliamentary year, would be desirable because the situation needed to be “brought to a head and lanced quickly”. But Jensen said he himself was not planning to move for a spill – he had been part of the spill move on Malcolm Turnbull in opposition “and you get the reputation of a hitman”.

As to the replacement, “it depends on who declares”.

Jensen said the Abbott government did not have a strategic plan for growth – “consumer and business confidence are down the toilet. We just continue to bag the opposition.”

The public had reservations in 2013 when voting the Coalition in, Jensen said. “It was not a great love-in vote – it was a vote to turf out the Labor Party.”

Jensen said that after he sent his message to Abbott they had a text exchange; Abbott rang and they spoke briefly. An appointment was set up for next week, but Abbott might not want to keep it now, Jensen said.

As the leadership crisis continues to deepen, Abbott repeatedly refused to be drawn on a report from Sky News that in a weekend meeting with Julie Bishop he had asked for an assurance she would not challenge and she had declined to give it. “I’m not going to play these Canberra insider games,” he said.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane called on Bishop and Turnbull to declare publicly they would not challenge Abbott. Macfarlane said that he had been assured privately by Turnbull that he was not planning any leadership challenge.

Later, in a Tuesday afternoon statement to Sky, Bishop ruled out a challenge, saying: “I am not campaigning for the job of Prime Minister, I am not ringing the backbench asking for support. I am not counting any numbers, I will not challenge the leader.”

In Tuesday’s Essential poll, Abbott has only about half the support of either Turnbull or Bishop as best leader of the Liberal Party. Turnbull, on 24%, and Bishop, on 21%, were neck-and-neck, with Abbott on only 11%. Among Coalition voters, Abbott polled 23%, Turnbull 24% and Bishop 26%.

In June last year, Abbott was rating 18%, Turnbull 31% and Bishop a tiny 4%.

Abbott is viewed poorly on various leadership attributes: he is seen as erratic (60%), out of touch with ordinary people (72%), arrogant (65%), narrow-minded (63%), intolerant (54%), and superficial (55%). Only 27% rate him trustworthy and 22% believe he is visionary. The Coalition trailed Labor 46-54% on the two party vote.

Liberal backbencher Angus Taylor, considered one of the up-and-coming members among the class of 2013, warned that “leadership changes are seductive but ineffective in dealing with the real issue”.

“You’ve got to step back from all of this and say what’s the problem here – and the problem is trying to drive reform in an environment where there’s a volatile electorate [and] for the first time for decades we don’t have money coming in at a rapid rate to plaster over the cracks, so we’ve got to do hard things. We’ve got to explain those hard things to the Australian people – and changing leaders doesn’t solve that problem,” Taylor said.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic has written to colleagues warning against a leadership spill. “Parties of all persuasions have been behind in the polls at various stages of the political cycle – but only weak parties lose their composure and unity of purpose when challenged,” he said.