Australian PM vows to change after failed bid to unseat him

Martin Parry

Sydney (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed Monday to change after surviving a confidence vote on his leadership, while urging an end to the disunity that has seen the government's popularity plummet.

Abbott has been fighting for his job after poor poll ratings and a series of policy backflips spurred some MPs from his conservative Liberal Party openly to attack him, calling last week for a leadership "spill".

The motion aimed to declare vacant the positions of party leader and deputy leader, occupied by Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

If it had succeeded, the party room -- Liberal Party members of both houses of parliament -- could have voted for new candidates.

But the 101 Liberal parliamentarians -- one was absent -- rejected the proposal by 61 to 39 in a secret ballot. One vote was discarded for either being incorrectly completed or not filled in at all.

In a televised statement, Abbott called for the party to end "disunity and uncertainty" and move forward.

"The Liberal Party has dealt with the spill motion and now this matter is behind us," he said.

"We are absolutely determined to work for you, the people who elected us. We want to end the disunity and the uncertainty which destroyed two Labor governments and give you the good government that you deserve."

Labor switched leaders twice during its time in power from 2007 to 2013, with Abbott highly critical at the time.

University of Western Sydney political historian David Burchell said the recurring instability could be partly blamed on the diminishing ability of politicians to properly explain tough decisions to the public.

"I don't believe either this government or the opposition have any idea how to speak in those terms," he said.

"They have become paralysed by the fear of fickle electorates, and trapped in a cycle of endless political crisis management."

Abbott admitted in a later press conference that the government had "bitten off more than we could chew" in trying to rein in a growing budget deficit by slashing health and education spending while tightening welfare -- moves condemned as too harsh.

"I have listened, I have learnt, and I have changed and the government will change with me," he said, vowing to be more "consultative and collegial".

Abbott initially refused to be drawn on whether he planned to reshuffle his cabinet, with Treasurer Joe Hockey widely seen as a potential fall guy. But he later told parliament: "I stand by my treasurer. I stand by my team."

- Government 'in paralysis' -

Abbott, 57, survived despite waking to a dire Newspoll in The Australian broadsheet, and the vote outcome is unlikely to end speculation about his future.

The poll showed the ruling Liberal-National coalition trails the Labor opposition on a two-party basis 43 percent to 57 percent, while 68 percent of the 1,178 people interviewed were dissatisfied with Abbott's performance.

His popularity lags far behind Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Bishop, both touted as potential future leadership contenders.

Opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten said the government was "in paralysis".

"Tony Abbott promised he would run a stable and united government. This is his biggest broken promise yet," he said.

"The prime minister and ministers should be protecting the living standards and jobs of all Australians -- but they're only interested in their own jobs."

Since being elected in September 2013, the government has sealed free trade deals with China, South Korea and Japan. It also killed off controversial carbon and mining taxes and sharply reduced the number of asylum-seeker boats arriving in Australia.

But the proposed savings to curb the budget deficit alienated many voters, with Hockey widely criticised for failing to sell them sufficiently.

Abbott has also been criticised for changing positions on several issues and high-handed decision-making, with the bid to unseat him coming after he awarded Britain's Prince Philip a knighthood last month.

One of the backbenchers who initiated the confidence vote, Luke Simpkins, said Abbott created the situation himself.

"This has been a good wake-up call," he said.