SYDNEY – Prime Minister Tony Abbott is nearing the end of his first full year in office hobbled by missteps and a souring economy that have plunged his approval ratings to historic lows, increasing speculation he may not survive to a second term.
Faced with a collapse in commodities prices and an unruly upper house Senate that has held his first budget hostage since May, voters have abandoned his conservative government more quickly than any other in three decades.
The drum beat of bad news, most recently the thrashing handed to Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition in state elections in Victoria on Saturday, has sparked calls for Treasurer Joe Hockey and Defense Minister David Johnston to be thrown out.
However, even a Cabinet reshuffle may be too little, too late, with the opposition Labor Party increasingly painting Abbott as a hypocrite over policy shifts that include deep cuts to the popular Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Abbott was a ruthlessly effective opposition leader against Labor Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, but those qualities are less desirable in a prime minister, Dr. Andrew Hughes of the Australian National University said.
“Tony Abbott’s brand is so hard and it’s so negative. It makes you wonder whether he was a one-use only brand,” he said.
Abbott has had significant accomplishments this year, concluding free trade deals with Japan, South Korea and China, and hosting the Group of 20 leaders’ summit last month.
Still, Labor has surged ahead to lead the government by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent in the latest Newspoll released on Nov. 18.
A Cabinet reshuffle is likely after the Victorian election, Hughes said, but a leadership swap may already be unavoidable.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has performed well this year, is seen as a possible leader.
“If those numbers don’t budge, they’re going to have to consider it. They’ve got no choice,” Hughes said.
Australia, by far the world’s biggest exporter of iron ore and coal, has been battered by a worldwide fall in commodity prices. Iron prices have plunged 44 percent so far this year to under $76 a ton.
Abbott warned about ballooning deficits in May when he released an unpopular budget packed with deregulation moves, new levies and spending cuts, but the public has never accepted his plan.
On Monday, Deloitte Access Economics released a report predicting that, based on a combination of Senate intransigence and plummeting revenues, there is no chance for the balanced budget Abbott predicted for 2017-18.
“Australia’s budget boom of the last decade is ending, not with a bang, but with a whimper,” Deloitte said.
On Monday, Abbott described the government’s performance in the past week as “ragged.” That included Defense Minister Johnston saying he would not trust a government-owned submarine firm “to build a canoe,” which led to calls for his sacking.
“Obviously I take responsibility for everything in the end. I mean, the buck stops here,” Abbott told reporters.
Treasurer Hockey, once considered a successor for Abbott, has been hurt by the budget impasse and will be a likely target in any reshuffle.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Monday he expects that a scheduled mid-year fiscal update this month will confirm that budget as Hockey’s first — and last.