Beleaguered Australian PM Abbott looks to separate friends from foes

Prime Minister Tony Abbott prepares to speak at the National Press Club on February 2, 2015 in Canberra.

Story highlights

  • Facing criticism from all sides, Australian leader Tony Abbott begs for more time
  • Low approval ratings and state-level drubbings are taking their toll
  • Perceived rivals publicly backing him -- for now

Sydney (CNN)He's an embattled prime minister and he doesn't deny it. So when Australia's Tony Abbott faced journalists and his colleagues to deliver a highly anticipated speech in Canberra on Monday, he fessed up and begged for time.

Seen as tricky, mean and unwilling to keep his promises, the Australian leader has been under pressure recently to resign. To stem the criticism, Abbott offered a few olive branches: more consultation with his colleagues, more control over foreigners buying in to the property market in Australia's major cities and a crackdown on Islamic groups sympathetic to ISIS.
    Throughout, however, he made it clear he was staying put.

    Broken promises

    Since his election in September 2013, Abbott has accumulated more critics than supporters. A litany of broken promises and a stalled budget have left his achievements looking parlous.
    He had promised there would be no cuts to health, education and pensions, nor the national broadcasters, ABC and the SBS. All have since faced reduced funding. His first budget has been hijacked by minor party objections and horse-trading. Many measures remain stuck in the Senate, the upper house of the Australian parliament.
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    He's managed to keep one of his central promises: to dump a carbon tax introduced by Julia Gillard, the predecessor he maligned for breaking promises.
    And his government can be fairly said to have stopped the boatloads of asylum seekers making their way to Australia from Indonesian ports. This was achieved after several years, during which up to 1,000 people died on the journey.
    However, even that achievement has come at a cost to his personal reputation. Sending asylum seekers to Australian-run camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru has ended in riots and one death.
    When he honored Prince Philip, the husband of the Queen of England, with a knighthood, the fuse of national anger ignited. He is appearing to be a tin-eared leader, out of touch with ordinary Australians.

    Using the ballot

    Queenslanders took the opportunity to slap down his conservative allies by throwing them out of office in a statewide election last weekend.
    Talk had begun, worsening after the Queensland poll, that Abbott would be dumped if he refused to resign.
    Half stump speech, half stock-taking on the government's achievements, his public appearance at the National Press Club is unlikely to placate his most ardent critics, who now include many conservative commentators.
    Poll after poll reveals the extent of his unpopularity. A Fairfax/Ipsos poll taken in late January shows the government would lose the next election by a landslide, based on current figures. Abbott's personal approval rating has nosedived too.
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    Potential challengers

    The two cabinet ministers most often talked about as likely to challenge him for the top job have pledged loyalty, albeit in muted tones. Abbott didn't deny he had sought an assurance of loyalty from his deputy, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
    "I accept this is a government which has gone through a difficult patch. All governments go through difficult patches," he said.
    "This will be a test of character. Now, politicians pass the test when they do what is best for the long term, not when they give in to short term fear and make a difficult situation worse.
    "As for Julie, she's a friend of mine. Julie is my deputy. She's been a terrific deputy and a terrific minister. I believe I have her support and I certainly look forward to continuing to have that."
    On his other rival, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, there was silence. Turnbull is a popular figure and the preferred conservative leader for those who vote for the opposition, the Australian Labor Party. However, Turnbull's pro-climate change, pro-same sex marriage stance makes him a difficult alternative for his own party to accept as leader. For the moment, Turnbull is toeing the line and publicly stating he supports his leader.

    Tenacious premier

    Given the frenzy of anger and disappointment unleashed against Abbott over the past week, and the anticipation attached to Monday's appearance, it was clear the prime minister would never be able to achieve the bar set for him.
    In the end, he did all that he could do.
    He begged his colleagues to stick with him and warned Australians that, if they followed Queensland (and before it Victoria, which also recently turfed out a conservative government), they'd face the re-introduction of a carbon tax. Wiping it from the statute books, he says, has saved the average Australian household $500 a year.
    It might sound glib to assert that $500 a year is all that stands between Tony Abbott, Prime Minister and Tony Abbott, washed up politician. But given his nemesis Turnbull has long advocated action on climate change, it's truer than it sounds.