New poll blow to Abbott on eve of crucial speech

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he regretted the distraction his knighthood for Prince Philip had caused in the Queensland election campaign. AAP/Wayne King

The Abbott government would face a devastating rebuff if an election were held now, losing some 36 seats on a uniform 7.5% swing, according to a Fairfax/Ipsos poll published on Sunday.

The poll, taken from Thursday to Saturday night, comes in the wake of the Queensland election rout and on the eve of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s address to the National Press Club, which will be crucial to whether the intense pressure on his leadership continues to grow in the short term.

The poll of more than 1400 voters had the Coalition trailing Labor 46-54% on a two-party basis. This is a four-point move to Labor since the last poll in December. The Coalition’s primary vote is down two points to 38% and Labor’s is up three points to 40% since December.

Fairfax Media has not yet reported on leadership questions. The Australian Financial Review said other aspects of the poll, to be published on Monday, “will do nothing to quell open talk within the government of replacing Tony Abbott as leader and Joe Hockey as Treasurer”.

As the party reeled under the Queensland result, Abbott told reporters he very much regretted the distraction his knighthood for Prince Philip had caused in the state campaign.

Abbott said there were obviously lessons in the result “and we’re determined to learn them in Canberra”. Those lessons were “not to give up on reform, but to make sure that everything you propose is fully explained and well justified”.

Abbott said defiantly: “I am determined to ensure that Australia does not join the weak government club of the world”.

“Now I don’t say for a second that we haven’t made mistakes. I don’t say for a second that we can’t do things better, but I am not going to be distracted from the essential task of giving the country the good government that it deserves.”

Asked whether he could recover, Abbott said: “The people of Australia elected me as prime minister and they elected my government to get on with the job of governing our country, to clean up Labor’s mess.

"I accept that we need to learn from the difficulties that we’ve had, but in the end, government is not a popularity contest – it is a competence contest.”

Attorney-General George Brandis said the Coalition would be “crazy” to repeat the experience of Labor in tearing down an elected leader. “The Liberal Party will not be doing that.” He said Abbott had “the strong and unanimous support of his cabinet and the overwhelming support of his party room”.

Australian politics was entering a period of unprecedented volatility, Brandis told Sky. “The electorate is prepared to move sharply and move faster than it has ever moved before.”

Brandis said the government last week had “a shocker of a week. The Prime Minister had a shocker of a week arising from his decision to confer the AK on Prince Philip. It was, in my view, the government’s very worst week.”

Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop have been canvassed as replacements for Abbott. Turnbull, who is flying back to Australia from the United States, said before leaving: “The Prime Minister has my support. I’m a member of the Government and he has the support of the Government.” But Turnbull would not be drawn when asked what he would say to those backbenchers who were getting uneasy and suggesting perhaps that there might need to be a change.

Queensland Liberal backbencher Jane Prentice said on Saturday night that last week she had told Abbott that “you are not taking the people with you; we are not explaining why we are doing things”.

Speaking on the ABC’s election panel she also indicated the leadership was a matter for discussion and said Monday’s Press Club appearance would be “pivotal”.

Cabinet will hold a long-scheduled two-day meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday; parliament resumes in a week with the party room meeting on Tuesday of next week.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.