Liberal MPs say Tony Abbott is in danger of making the next election a referendum about him unless he stops taking Labor's bait and indulging in personal politics.
The Federal Opposition's attack on the Government's mid-year economic update was upturned yesterday by Mr Abbott's comment about a proposed trimming of the $5000 baby bonus to $3000 for second and subsequent children.
Treasurer Wayne Swan had defended the measure by saying that after the first child, parental costs were less because "you've already bought the cot, the pram and other items that you can use again".
The Opposition Leader said in response yesterday: "If the Government was a bit more experienced in this area, they wouldn't come out with glib lines like that."
Labor MPs interpreted the comment as a deliberate reference to Julia Gillard's childlessness. The Prime Minister said Mr Abbott should explain what he meant.
She said she stood by her speech to Parliament a fortnight ago in which she labelled him a misogynist and a sexist.
Mr Abbott later explained he was alluding to his own experience as a father of three daughters and not the PM.
"If she wants to take offence, of course I'm sorry about that and if she would like me to say sorry, I'm sorry," he said.
Liberal MPs contacted by _The West Australian _ said Mr Abbott must show greater discipline in avoiding being antagonised by Labor, even when justifiably hurt by slurs.
One said: "Voters want us to be the adults in the room and they have been disappointed with us in the last couple of months.
"If we allow the next election to become a referendum on Tony Abbott then we are in trouble - we have to make sure it's a referendum on Labor's record in Government."
The coalition has calculated the Government would be facing a $14 billion deficit rather than a $1.1 billion surplus if not for a series of money-shuffles and accounting tricks.It believes that since the mid-year update of late last year, the Government has deliberately moved money around the Budget to engineer a surplus in the 2012-13 financial year.
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