SYDNEY (Reuters) - Conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed mounting speculation on Monday that his position is in danger, playing down talk that he may call a snap election to stem off a leadership coup from within his own party.
Abbott emerged badly weakened from a leadership challenge by lawmakers in his own Liberal Party in February, which came about after weeks of infighting and dismal poll numbers, and pledged a new spirit of conciliation.
He and his government have since consistently lagged the center-left opposition Labor Party in opinion polls, helping to fuel speculation over how long his party would give him to turn things around.
A by-election in a normally safe Liberal seat in Western Australia state scheduled for Saturday is being watched closely amid speculation that a poor showing could be used as a trigger to remove Abbott and install a more popular alternative.
“I just am not going to get caught up in Canberra gossip, I’m not going to play Canberra games,” Abbot told reporters in the southern city of Adelaide, referring to political maneuvering in the Australian capital.
“I expect that the government will go to the middle of next year and maybe a bit beyond, because that’s what we were elected to do three years ago,” he said.
The February challenge followed criticism of Abbott’s leadership style and judgment, including his decision to award an Australian knighthood to Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip.
Abbott has continued to defy popular opinion inside and outside his party, despite pledging to be more consultative, blocking his MPs from supporting same-sex marriage and announcing an emissions reduction target criticized as inadequate by environmental groups.
He agreed last week to take in 12,000 Syrian refugees, but the news was overshadowed by rumors of a cabinet reshuffle and an insensitive gaffe about climate change, caught by a microphone at a meeting, by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
A Fairfax-Ipsos poll published on Monday showed that voters in the seat of Canning in Western Australia could deliver a swing of up to 10 percent against the government in Saturday’s by-election.
That would not be enough for Labor to win the seat but it would be seen as a disastrous outcome for Abbott’s leadership just a year out from a scheduled general election.
No one in the Liberal Party has publicly put up their hand to challenge Abbott, but Communications Minister and former party leader Malcolm Turnbull is seen as a likely successor.
Editing by Paul Tait