Malcolm Turnbull arrives at Parliament House on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Malcolm Turnbull has denied telephoning Liberals to canvass their support as former minister Arthur Sinodinos became the most senior Liberal yet to question the judgment of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Mr Sinodinos, a former Abbott loyalist, described his support for the stricken leader as “ongoing” (but) “not unconditional” on Sky News.
Asked if Mr Abbott would be prime minister next week, Senator Sinodinos replied, “Comrade, ask me next week”.
Liberals viewed that intervention as crucial with one calling it “extremely telling”.
“Arthur’s comment makes it more much more serious,” said another senior Liberal, “people will now look around to see if someone is starting to count for an actual candidate.”
Amid feverish speculation over the leadership, unconfirmed reports also claimed Mr Turnbull had moved to assuage fears in the conservative wing of the party that his return to the leadership would see a reprise of the carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.
It was claimed Mr Turnbull had promised, in a secret deal, that there would be no such reprise if elected.
Senator Sinodinos said Mr Abbott should look beyond his own communication failures to poorly designed policies such as the Medicare co-payment, arguing the proposed six-month consultation period in the repackaged policy was “far too long on a issue that should have been settled last year”.
The NSW senator, who is widely respected as a political strategist, said it was not just the failed sales job on some policies but the policies themselves that might need to be dropped.
Senator Sinodinos was also equivocal on whether a spill would help the Liberal Party’s situation saying he didn’t “know what is on offer”.
“Come back to me if and when anybody puts their hand up, that’s the best I can do.”
Mr Turnbull’s denial of canvassing came after reports began circulating on Wednesday that the former leader and now Communications Minister had rung two colleagues to assess their attitude as part of a support gathering exercise ahead of a challenge.
The public skirmish was a sign of the febrile atmosphere in the Liberal Party with suspicion running high among ministers and backbenchers said to be exchanging views and engaging in abuse.
Liberals sources continued to offer conflicting accounts of the party-room numbers with proponents of change claiming as many as 30 to 40 MPs in favour of dumping Mr Abbott while Abbott loyalists scoffed at such suggestions, branding them “wild exaggerations designed to build momentum”.
Treasurer Joe Hockey told Network Ten’s The Project on Wednesday night that there would not be a spill.
“There is an unbelievable amount of gossip around this building. Often it is unsourced. I must say, I mean, at various points I felt like I’m a Hollywood reporter reporting on gossip in Canberra,” he said.
“The difference between Canberra and Hollywood is there’s, thankfully, no naughty stuff going on here.
“There won’t be a spill. There is no candidate. All the potential candidates have said they’re not participating in any of this.
“It is, sadly, a legacy of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years and what’s happened over the last few years.
“We don’t want to have six governments in eight years. We want to stabilise things.”
Fairfax Media understands another MP is preparing to enter the fray with a public call for a change, thereby ratcheting up the pressure on Mr Abbott to grant a spill of the leadership at Tuesday’s crucial first party room meeting of the year.
Mr Abbott again used a public forum, this time a televised radio interview ahead a of a second cabinet meeting in two days, to call for an end to “navel gazing”.
“The last thing we should do is go anywhere near reproducing the rabble of the Labor years,” he said.
As the Liberal Party’s leadership crisis deepened on Wednesday, with claim and counter-claim and rumour flying about, several MPs predicted new calls would emerge from the backbench within the next 24 hours.
There were also suggestions from MPs agitating for change that a so-called “rapid-reaction” unit had been set up in the Prime Minister’s office to target and dig dirt on MPs who had come out publicly to criticise Mr Abbott, however that has been emphatically denied by Mr Abbott’s office.
Several MPs also told Fairfax Media that newer MPs were being threatened that if a leadership vote went ahead, they would be forced to raise their hands and show who they supported in the party room, rather than having a secret ballot.
One MP said the strategy of malcontents appeared to be to not target Mr Abbott personally – as he is well liked within the party – but to highlight policy failures, which were responsible for the government’s woes.
A second MP said a consensus already existed that the leadership issue “had to be brought to a head”.
“A hell of a lot will happen between now and next Tuesday,” the MP said.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne, who said he had personally sought Mr Turnbull’s assurance that he was not canvassing support, also revealed deputy leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had felt offended and insulted by Tuesday’s demands from another minister that she publicly affirm her loyalty to Mr Abbott.
In an interview with Fairfax Media’s The Australian Financial Review, Ms Bishop explained her response to the call from Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane that she declare her intentions.
“I should not be called upon to rule out what I’m clearly not doing,” she said.
“I said to the PM yesterday that I am not campaigning for his job, I am not ringing the backbench seeking support, I am not counting numbers. I support the leader, PM Tony Abbott.
“Tony Abbott is the leader, Tony Abbott is the PM, so I am supporting him.”
It was a comment she repeated at a speech at the ANU on Wednesday evening.
When asked whether she would nominate in the event of a spill, she said: “Oh please – I’m not dealing in hypotheticals, I deal in reality.”
“I am overjoyed being the Foreign Minister … This is the job that I coveted coming into politics. I am living my dream.”