Abbott walks a fine line amid leadership rumblings

Mark Riley

COMMENT: Tony Abbott has a favourite joke about himself.

As a journalist, he was a frustrated politician.

As a politician, he's a frustrated journalist.

And as a seminarian, well, he was just plain frustrated.

It was appropriate, then, the former journalist, who is now prime minister, took to the National Press Club to confront the frustrations felt about him, to atone for his political sins, assure his nervous backbench he will change and to deliver a thundering sermon on why he should remain the man at the political pulpit.

At least, that's what his nervous backbench expected.

What they heard was quite different.

There was no thunder, no mea culpa and no real search for absolution beyond an admission that he had “listened” and “learned” and “acted”.

What they did hear, though, was a clear message: Tony Abbott is not going anywhere – at least not voluntarily.

Those in his party who want him out will have to blast him out.

And there are some who are now considering doing exactly that. Monday's speech hasn't calmed their fury.

Several told me they desperately wanted new messages from the Prime Minister that they could take to their electorates to douse the anger and dismay they're copping from the party faithful over the bungled “barnacle scraping” exercise, the deeply unpopular Medicare co-payment proposal, the proposal to deregulate university fees, Mr Abbott's contribution to the Queensland wipe-out and the befuddling decision that has so quickly stamped the Prime Minister as a man deeply out of touch with the Australian community – his inconceivable decision to bestow a knighthood on Prince Phillip.

An exclusive 7News/ReachTEL poll asked almost 3700 Australians if they supported Tony Abbott's knighthood call

Just 12 percent said 'YES'. More than 71 percent, 'NO'. Photo: 7News

They felt they got precious little.

Though, there was something of an admission on the nightmare knighthood: “I accept that I probably overdid it on honours.”

Probably? Really? You think?

And a wise move to strip himself of the singular power to bestow such honours and hand it to the Australia Day Honours Council.

There was also a real back down on his other “captain's pick”, his paid parental leave scheme.

It’s now gone, to be replaced with a broader childcare package. The details will be released closer to the May Budget.

But the other unpopular policies remain. For now. And so does Mr Abbott.

Only 18 percent of voters say Tony Abbott is best to lead the Coalition. Photo: 7News

As government MPs prepare to drag themselves back to Canberra for the start of the new parliamentary year next week, and the first party room meeting of the year, Tony Abbott suggested today that his future should not be in their hands but those of voters at the next election.

“It's the people that hire and frankly it's the people that should fire,” he said.

But that is as absurd as his other confected truism that “leadership is not a popularity contest”.

Ask Campbell Newman what he thinks about that!

Campbell Newman announced his retirement from politics on Saturday night when he was ousted from his Ashgrove electorate. Photo: AAP

Voters elect governments; parliamentary parties appoint leaders.

It has always been thus.

John Howard knew that.

“I will remain leader for as long as the party wants me,” he would say when the question of his leadership raised its head.

The same remains true for Tony Abbott today.

He will remain leader for as long as the party wants him.

It's just the party has yet to make up its mind on how long that will be.

Today's speech didn't make that decision any easier, or harder.