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Australia's Prime Minister Might Be Thrown Out by His Own Party Next Week

Tony Abbott faces a motion that would vacate all leadership positions within his governing liberal party, after his decision to knight the UK's Prince Philip caused his popularity to plummet.

by Scott Mitchell
Feb 6 2015, 12:15pm

Photo by Rick Rycroft/AP

Australia's Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, could be kicked out of office by next Tuesday. He is not facing an election but a vote over his leadership by his own party, and his adversaries are citing his knighting of the UK's Prince Philip as the final straw.

On Friday, Luke Simpkins, a member of Abbott's ruling Liberal Party in the Australian parliament, dropped the bombshell that Abbott would have to face a formal challenge to his control after two weeks of speculation.

Simpkins wrote to Liberal MPs, telling them that he would move to "spill" all leadership positions in the party at a meeting next Tuesday and that he had a second for the motion.

If his motion is successful, it would declare all positions in the party vacant and force the parliamentary party to re-elect a leader and deputy leader. If Abbott failed in this ballot, he would lose the prime ministership.

"In the last two weeks I have been inundated with emails and walk-ins to my electorate office all questioning the direction the government is being led in," wrote Simpkins in an email to colleagues that has since been leaked to media. "The knighthood issue was for many the final proof of a disconnection with the people."

Abbott awarded a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day, January 26, without consulting any of his party colleagues and the honor has proven to be deeply unpopular with voters and politicians alike.

The Liberal Party, which won office in 2013, had run on a platform of stability after the rival Labor Party had been in leadership chaos for much of its time in office.

In 2010, Labor powerbrokers overthrew Kevin Rudd, who had won them government for the first time in over 10 years, to replace him with Julia Gillard. They then overthrew her in 2013, to return Rudd as prime minister after poor polling numbers.

Abbott faced reporters soon after Simpkins announcement and, in a statement directed at his colleagues, said: "We are not the Labor Party."

Abbott also said he would "stand together" with deputy leader Julie Bishop against the motion, adding: "They [the spill backers] are asking the party room to vote out the people that the electorate voted in in September 2013."

Treasurer Joe Hockey was among the MPs to immediately support Abbott. "Australians do not want to have six governments in eight years," he said.

Andrew Nikolic, a Tasmanian MP, went further when he said Australia risked becoming like, "small countries in South America or Africa" if the party ousted another elected leader.

The revolt against Abbott has so far only received public support from influential backbenchers, including Arthur Sinodinos and Warren Entsch, both respected elder statesmen in the Liberal Party.

No candidate against Abbott has yet declared themselves, however. It has been widely speculated that Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the party before Abbott, could be the alternative candidate.

At his last public appearance, on Thursday, he reaffirmed his loyalty to Abbott but sidestepped questions over whether he would like to be prime minister.

When Turnbull was asked whether Abbott will be still be in the job next week, he answered: "We'll see. You'll just have to wait and see. There is a lot of forensic commentary and discussion about it, but the fact is that we have a very strong government, very competent government. We're a very united team."

Turnbull has not commented publicly since the announcement of the spill. He is considered less conservative than Abbott, who hails from the religious right of the party. Turnbull is an economic and social liberal, who once led Australia's republican movement at a referendum in 1999. The vote would have removed the Queen as head of state but was rejected by nearly 55 percent of voters.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell