February 1, 2015 / 6:03 AM / 3 years ago

Crucial week for under-fire Australian PM after 'catastrophic' poll

PERTH, Australia (Reuters) - Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott came under renewed leadership pressure on Sunday, a little over a year into office following a voter backlash in a state poll and a slump in his personal approval rating.

Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Abbott said he was determined to stay on as leader, adding government was “not a popularity contest”, but conceded Saturday’s rout of the Liberal-National party (LNP) in the Queensland election had delivered a jolt.

“The people of Australia elected me as prime minister and they elected my government to get on with the job of governing our country,” he told reporters in Sydney.

“I accept that we’ve had some difficulties,” Abbott said. “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.”

In an embarrassing result for the Queensland LNP, closely aligned to Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, the party surrendered the largest political majority in Australia’s history after just one term in office.

Members of the government called the result “catastrophic”, sparking speculation of a possible party revolt against Abbott’s leadership.

Local media reported that Abbott has called a two-day meeting of his cabinet from Tuesday to thrash out a policy agenda for 2015 and confront the political issues dogging his government.

Fairfax media reported backbenchers and ministers have been expressing growing doubts over Abbott’s leadership in recent weeks, however the majority of the dissatisfaction has been kept behind closed doors or through background briefings to the media.

Attorney-General George Brandis told Sky News the cabinet “was determinedly, unitedly and strongly behind the prime minister”.

MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH OF CAREER

Abbott has been criticised for broken electoral promises and a series of policy backflips.

That pressure intensified last week when even his biggest supporters, including Australian-born media baron Rupert Murdoch, publicly criticised his contentious and unpopular decision to award Britain’s Prince Philip a knighthood.

Abbott’s surprise reintroduction of knights and dames in the honours system last year drew criticism that he was out of touch with national sentiment.

A voter poll published in News Ltd. newspapers on Sunday showed voter approval for Abbott at 27 percent, trailing Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten’s approval rating of 44 percent.

Abbott will deliver a key speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on Monday in what is now being seen as the most important of his career.

“Tony has said he has listened and learned,” Jane Prentice, a Queensland-based federal Liberal National backbencher, said on ABC television.

“He is making a keynote speech on Monday at the Press Club, but we can’t continue as we are,” she said. “I think that’s the lesson from today.”

Reporting by Morag MacKinnon; Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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