Tony Abbott leans to remaining in parliament

Former prime minister Tony Abbott said that he was not going to rush into a decision about his future. Lukas Coch/AAP

Tony Abbott has extended his Christmas deadline for a decision on his future – and it sounds like he is inclined to stay in parliament.

In comments that will irk his critics within the government, the former prime minister said he had received “thousands and thousands of messages of support and encouragement”. As he moved around, he was being told overwhelmingly “that I still have a contribution to make to our public life”, he said on Sky.

The Australian reported his deadline would now be when preselection processes started in April-May.

An Essential poll published on Tuesday found 49% thought Abbott should leave parliament, with 30% saying he should resign now and 19% at the next election. More than three in ten – 32% – believed he should stay in parliament; 14% said on the backbench, while 18% believed he should stay and be given a ministry.

Among Coalition voters, 48% said he should stay (31% as a minister) and 37% believed he should resign.

Abbott’s comments about his future came as former treasurer Joe Hockey, whose appointment as ambassador to the United States was announced on Tuesday, said if he had stayed in parliament it would have been about payback.

“I still have, you know, three to four years of desire to contribute to the country in one form or another. It’s just the politics at the end of the day beat me. If I was going to stay, it would be overwhelmingly about getting even with people that brought me down. I love my country, my family more than I hate my enemies,” he said in an interview for an online television program.

“If it is all about you, you are in the business for the wrong reasons.”

Many in the government have been hoping Abbott would decide by Christmas to leave at the election. They are concerned about his presence being disruptive, as he takes a high profile on issues and seeks to rebut criticisms of him and his former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin. He is a focus for some disgruntled conservatives in the parliamentary party.

If Turnbull won the election and Abbott was still in parliament, he might try to push for a frontbench spot.

He is undertaking regular speaking and writing. He will deliver a speech in Singapore on Wednesday, canvassing the challenge of dealing with Islamic State, and has an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph.

He said he was not going to “rush into a final decision” about his future.

Public life was “a vocation” and being a member of parliament, including being a backbencher, was “a noble and an honourable calling”.

He said he was not in the business of replaying past events but “a lot of people are still prosecuting cases that should have been frankly let go on the 14th of September”, and it was important he correct the record where he thought it had been misrepresented and defend his government.

“Because let’s face it, this is the foundation upon which the government – the new government if you like – is building, so if I defend that legacy I believe I am helping Prime Minister Turnbull and his colleagues do the right thing.”

He said Turnbull was “obviously someone that deserves my respect and support as the leader of our party and the prime minister of our country”.

Asked whether a conservative could be prime minister again, Abbott said:

Not only can a conservative be prime minister, I think often enough we need a conservative as prime minister.

Let’s face it, the conservative instinct is to respect and value everything which has made us who we are. And there is so much that we can be incredibly proud of here in Australia.

He lamented the lack of cultural self-belief in the West generally, and even in Australia. “Now conservatives in particular are the custodians of that cultural self-belief and that’s why I think that whatever might happen to individual conservatives, that political conservatism has a very important future.”