Australia's beleaguered Abbott endures one final nightmare before Christmas

World View: If 2014 has been mostly dire for his conservative government, the past two weeks have been nothing short of appalling

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The Independent Online

A treasurer under siege, a foreign minister in a sulk and a defence minister about to be forced to walk the plank.

Add a stuttering economy, a string of poor opinion polls and a seven-month-old budget stalled in an upper house some have likened to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and it’s not surprising that Tony Abbott, Australia’s Prime Minister, is not in the holiday mood.

As federal politicians convened yesterday for the last time before their summer break, Mr Abbott’s backbenchers – and even, reportedly, some of his own ministers – were in mutinous mood. If 2014 has been mostly dire for his conservative government, the past two weeks have been nothing short of appalling.

It’s hard to know where to start. The string of broken election promises? An “austerity budget” that hurt the poor and spared the rich? Mr Abbott’s stubborn blindness on climate change? The political folly of trying to water down racial hatred laws?

The Australian public is not impressed. Every opinion poll conducted during 2014 by one of the main polling organisations, Newspoll, has – bar one – put the opposition Labor Party ahead of the Liberal-National Party Coalition. And that is no tribute to the lacklustre opposition leader, Bill Shorten.

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Tony Abbott has remained stubborn on climate change (Getty Images)

With Labor eight points ahead in the latest Newspoll and the Prime Minister’s approval rating down to 33 per cent, there is speculation that he may face the same indignity as his Liberal colleague in Victoria, Denis Napthine, whose state government was ousted last weekend after just one term – the first Victorian premier to suffer that fate for nearly 60 years.

The next federal election is nearly two years off. Still, the decline in Mr Abbott’s fortunes has been dramatic. After he won a convincing victory in September 2013, things quickly went bad for him, and – apart from a period mid-year when his performance in foreign affairs won plaudits – they have never really got better.

Now even his most loyal cheerleaders in the Murdoch press are turning against him. A columnist in The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen, accused him of talking “utter nonsense” and “treating voters like dopes”. An editorial in the same newspaper urged him to stop peddling “silly slogans”.

If the Prime Minister’s woes are largely of his own making, then his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, must shoulder some blame. In May, Mr Hockey delivered one of the most unpopular budgets in Australian history. Its most despised measures – the introduction of a fee for visiting a GP, and deregulation of university fees – remain mired in the Senate.

In the Senate, the balance of power is held by a ragtag group, including Ricky Muir, the first and only representative of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party. The government has to court these crossbenchers almost constantly. Mr Muir was persuaded yesterday to support a new restrictive visa for refugees – Australia’s latest hardline measure to keep asylum-seekers out.

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The Australian public is not impressed with Tony Abbott, according to the polls (Getty Images)

Yesterday there was serious talk of Mr Hockey being replaced. But he is not the only senior figure under a cloud. The defence minister, David Johnston, is set to be reshuffled after declaring – in relation to the acquisition of a new submarine fleet – that he did not trust the government’s own shipbuilding firm to make a canoe.

As for the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, she reportedly “went bananas” after learning that the trade minister, Andrew Robb, was to accompany her to next week’s climate change talks in Peru – because Mr Abbott feared she might otherwise agree to ambitious emission reduction targets.

Then there are those broken promises – a dozen so far. They include an election-eve pledge not to cut the funding of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) or SBS (Special Broadcasting Service, for ethnic minorities). Both have had their budgets slashed.

The Prime Minister – who repeatedly lambasted his predecessor, Julia Gillard, as a “liar” for breaking an election promise – initially insisted that he hadn’t really broken a promise. Finally, late this week, he admitted that he had.

The most serious challenge facing the government is the economy, and the necessity to reduce a budget deficit which Mr Hockey blames on years of profligate Labor spending. That was the thinking behind his austerity measures. The problem is, neither he nor the prime minister has managed to explain that satisfactorily to voters.

Meanwhile, the economic news just gets worse. Figures out this week show that growth has virtually stopped, prompting warnings of a recession. The Australian dollar has slid to its lowest point for more than four years, and iron ore prices – a key source of foreign earnings – are plummeting.

Until now, Mr Abbott’s own position seemed secure. And even now, the grumblings among his MPs are muted. No one wants to repeat the disastrous merry-go-round of the previous Labor governments.

However, if the polls fail to improve, it is hard to imagine Mr Abbott leading his party into the next election. Were he to be replaced, his most likely successor would be Ms Bishop, an impressive foreign minister and the only woman in his cabinet.

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