Contrite Australian prime minister won't appoint knights

AP News
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Posted: Feb 01, 2015 11:40 PM

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Tony Abbott, facing down a revolt from within his own government ranks, promised Monday he would never again choose who gets an Australian knighthood and officially ditched his unpopular parental leave policy.

Abbott used a speech to the National Press Club to assure the nation and disgruntled members of his own administration that he was determined to lead "the most consultative and the most collegial government this country has ever seen."

After angering many within government ranks last week by making the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, an Australian knight, Abbott said that the Order of Australia Council would decide from now on who was made a knight or dame.

Abbott, who took power after winning an election in 2013, was widely criticized for resurrecting the titles a year ago. Bestowing a knighthood on the 93-year-old Duke of Edinburgh on Australia's national day was seen as an insult to deserving Australian citizens.

"I accept that I probably overdid it on awards," Abbott said.

He also ditched his unpopular policy to pay women who earn up to 100,000 Australian dollars ($78,000) a year the equivalent of their full salary for six months of maternity leave. The policy, which Abbot has described as his signature policy, was widely seen as unfair to the poor and had virtually no support within the government.

Abbott described both reintroducing knighthoods and the paid parental leave policy as "captain's calls," an Australian term that refers to a team captain using a prerogative to make decisions regardless of teammates' opinions.

"They are two captain's calls that I have made, but I have listened, I have learned and I have acted," he said.

A furor over Prince Philip's knighthood has been blamed in part for the surprise likely loss by the conservative government in elections on Saturday in Queensland state.

While vote counting continued, the center-left Labor Party appeared close to forming a government in the 89-seat state parliament in one of biggest political upsets in Australian history.

That is a rebound from the last election in 2012, when a Labor government was tossed out of power and left with only seven lawmakers.

Dissatisfaction with Abbott's government is also seen as a factor behind the loss of a conservative government in Victoria state elections in November.

Australian governments are rarely thrown out after a single term. Yet that happened in Victoria and is the most likely result in Queensland. Federal government lawmakers now fear that they are on track, with Abbott at the helm, to become the first single-term federal government since 1931.

Sydney's The Daily Telegraph newspaper described Abbott's speech on Monday as a "last-gasp hope for survival."

Fairfax Media reported on Monday that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the ruling Liberal Party's former leader, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Abbott's deputy, are under pressure from colleagues to challenge Abbott for the leadership in a ballot of Liberal lawmakers.

Bishop said she supported Abbott. Turnbull did not directly answer when asked at a press conference whether he was interested in regaining the party leadership he lost to Abbott by a single vote in 2009.

"The only thing we should be interested in on the political front today is the prime minister's speech to the National Press Club," Turnbull said before the speech.

A poll by market researcher Ipsos published by Fairfax Media newspapers Monday showed that the opposition Labor Party was clearly more popular than Abbott's government. It found 54 percent of respondents referred Labor and 46 percent preferred the government — a reversal of the 2013 election result that delivered the government a clear majority.

Abbott's approval rating had declined to 29 percent in the latest poll from 38 percent in December.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten's approval rating had climbed in the same period to 48 percent from 46 percent, although that change was within the poll's 2.6 percent margin of error.

The poll was based on a random nationwide telephone survey of 1,405 voters from Thursday through Saturday of last week.