PERTH, AUSTRALIA – Australia’s opposition Labor party pulled off a huge electoral turnaround in a key state on Saturday, positioning it to oust the ruling Liberal-National Party in a voter backlash that threatens the future of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Abbott said Sunday his government had “lessons to learn” from the rout in Queensland amid growing leadership questions after his unpopular move to knight Britain’s Prince Philip.
Rumors of challenges to Abbott’s position as prime minister have emerged over the past week after the knighthood decision. But the demise of the Liberal-National coalition in Queensland’s elections Saturday has piled further pressure on him.
The LNP, which is also the ruling coalition nationally, swept to victory in Queensland three years ago to record the state’s biggest-ever parliamentary triumph, taking 78 of 89 seats.
But in one of the most startling turnarounds in the nation’s political history, the opposition Labor Party — written off after the last election — appeared close to returning to power in the northeastern state as vote-counting continued.
“There are obviously lessons in the election result last night and we’re determined to learn them in Canberra,” Abbott told reporters, adding that he regretted the “distraction” of the knighthood debate. “I accept that we’ve had some difficulties. I accept that we need to learn from the difficulties that we’ve had, but in the end, government is not a popularity contest, it is a competence contest.”
Abbott’s government has seen its support plunge in opinion polls over the past year, coming under fire for its attempts to push through widespread spending cuts to rein in a growing budget deficit.
The latest poll published by The Sunday Telegraph showed the government would be heading for defeat if it called an election now. Support has dropped to 43 percent from 53.5 percent when they won the 2013 election, compared to Labor’s 57 percent.
Support for Abbott slipped to 27 percent, compared to 44 percent for Labor leader Bill Shorten, the poll found.
Abbott, an enthusiastic royalist, reintroduced the titles of dame and knight in Australia last year, but the move was criticized as being out of step with the public.
His decision to knight Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Philip, attracted widespread ridicule, with even unnamed politicians within Abbott’s own LNP reportedly describing the move as “stupid.”
Reports that a leadership challenge could be on the cards have revived memories of the political turmoil when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010.
Rudd returned to power in 2013 in the three months before his Labor Party lost the election to Abbott’s coalition, which had campaigned against what it called governmental chaos and dysfunction.
Attorney-General George Brandis said Sunday his party would be “crazy” to attempt a similar leadership change.
“We would be crazy to repeat the experience of the last Labor government, which failed because it tore down an elected leader, and the Liberal Party won’t be doing that,” he told Sky News.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have been mooted as possible contenders for the prime minister’s job, although both have publicly declared their support for Abbott.
Speaking from the United States, Turnbull — who once lost a tussle for leadership of the Liberal Party to Abbott by one vote — told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.: “The prime minister has my support. I’m a member of the government, (he) has the support of the government.”
In Sydney on Sunday, Bishop would only repeat in response to questions from reporters, “The prime minister has my support.”
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