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Australia's polarizing prime minister faces political crisis

Australians are quick to criticize their polarizing, gaffe-prone and unpredictable prime minister, Tony Abbott. But his critics within the conservative government have largely held their tongues in the interests of presenting a united administration — until now.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Australians are quick to criticize their polarizing, gaffe-prone and unpredictable prime minister, Tony Abbott. But his critics within the conservative government have largely held their tongues in the interests of presenting a united administration — until now.

Halfway through his first 3-year term, Abbott will face a move within his own party to oust him Tuesday. Lawmaker Luke Simpkins said Friday in an email to colleagues that he will enter a motion at a ruling Liberal Party meeting calling for Abbott to declare that his job and that of his deputy Julie Bishop are open to a ballot of 102 government lawmakers.

Abbott and his backers warn that changing prime ministers a sixth time in eight years would be a bad move for a country that has prided itself on political stability.

The popularity of Abbott's government took a dive last May, when it introduced its first annual budget, which was widely criticized as being toughest on the poorest and most vulnerable.

Unpopular bills to make the sick pay for medical services that are currently free, and to allow universities to raise their tuition fees to compensate for dwindling federal funding, have been blocked in the Senate.

"Not only do they look shifty, they look incompetent as well — that's all of them and Abbott's just the figurehead," Monash University political scientist Nick Economou said.

But one of Abbott's handicaps is that he has never been especially well liked, even when his conservative coalition ousted the Labor Party from power in 2013. Public dislike of Abbott is blamed in part for conservative governments taking big election losses in Victoria state in November and Queensland state on Jan. 31.

"He's persistently unpopular," said Martin O'Shannessy, chief executive of the respected pollster Newspoll.

For some members of his party, the final straw came last month when Abbott made Queen Elizabeth II's 93-year-old husband, Prince Philip, an Australian knight on Australia's national day. Born in London and a former Rhodes scholar, Abbott is a great admirer of British royalty, but giving such an honor to a foreign citizen who already has a long list of titles even alienated many monarchists.

The knighthood was possible only because Abbott had resurrected the titles of knights and dames in the Australian honors system last year, three decades after they had been abolished as anachronisms. It was a politically charged and divisive move since the opposition center-left Labor Party is committed to severing Australia's constitutional ties with the British monarchy. The Labor Party and even many conservatives want to replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state with a president who is an Australian citizen.

Abbott has other image problems, particularly among women voters. His habit of winking appears sleazy to some, and some of his observations on women's role in Australian society are criticized as being stuck in a bygone era. He was bewildered by the offense he created when he rated sex appeal as one of the political assets of a 36-year-old blonde female Liberal candidate in the 2013 election.

His inclusion of only one woman in his first Cabinet after his 2013 election victory only exacerbated those perceptions. That woman, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has been touted as a potential leadership challenger.

The Cabinet minister tipped as most likely to replace Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, was ousted as Liberal Party leader by Abbott in 2009, losing a ballot of party lawmakers by a single vote.

Abbott's public image is predominantly a macho man of action. A former amateur boxer, he's been seen surfing near his Sydney home, competing in volunteer lifeguard competitions, battling wildfires as a volunteer firefighter and riding his bicycle. Cartoonists usually depict Abbott in swim briefs, known in Australia as "budgie smugglers" — a reference to the budgerigar, a small Australian parrot.

He punched his Treasurer Joe Hockey — one of his most vocal backers — unconscious during a disagreement when they were both students at Sydney University.

Abbott seemed to take his macho image to an extreme when he threatened to "shirtfront" Russia's president during an international summit in the Australian city of Brisbane in November last year. "Shirtfront" is an Australian football term for a head-on shoulder charge to an opponent's chest.

Russian officials ridiculed the threat, warning that President Vladimir Putin was a judo expert. Abbott later tempered his language, promising a "robust discussion" with Putin about getting more cooperation from Russia on the investigation into the July downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine by a missile suspected to have been fired by Russian-backed rebels.

Abbott has conceded that he failed to consult colleagues on Prince Philip's knighthood and has promised disgruntled government figures a more consultative and collegial leadership style in the future.

He conceded this week that the 2013 election result was more a case of an unpopular and chaotic Labor government being dumped by voters than it was an endorsement of his conservative coalition. Julia Gillard won the prime minister's job from Kevin Rudd in 2010 in a leadership challenge by Labor Party lawmakers, but Rudd won it back from her in 2013, months before the party lost to Abbott's coalition in a landslide.

Liberal Party lawmakers "are perfectly entitled to call for this, but the next point to make is that they are asking the party room to vote out the people that the electorate voted in in September 2013," Abbott told reporters Friday.

"We are not the Labor Party and we are not going to repeat the chaos and the instability of the Labor years," he added.

Some officials in Abbott's government were equally vehement about avoiding the divisions their political opponents experienced.

"We saw, from the Labor Party when they were in government, it turn out like a very bad horror movie," Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said. "I just don't want to buy another ticket to such a horror movie."