Former PM argues plotters who wanted to replace him with Malcolm Turnbull struck early because Canning result would have undermined their case.
Tony Abbott has declared he would have led the Coalition to a victory at the next election, arguing the plotters timed the leadership challenge before the Canning byelection because the result would have undermined the notion he was unelectable.
The former prime minister used an interview with the talkback radio host Ray Hadley to say the country needed to end the phenomenon of the “revolving door prime ministership”, and to urge conservatives to vote for the Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition “even if they have to do it through gritted teeth”.
Abbott, who was rolled by Turnbull two weeks ago, indicated he would not make a decision on whether to quit parliament before Christmas.
Abbott said he did not want to focus on the negatives in the interview on 2GB on Tuesday, but took a swipe at Turnbull’s camp for bringing on the challenge a week before the byelection in the West Australian seat of Canning.
The Liberal candidate, Andrew Hastie, won the seat with about 55.25% of the vote, representing a swing to Labor of 6.6%.
“The Liberal party’s internal polling the weekend before the Canning by-election was that we were going to end up with 57% of the two-party preferred vote,” Abbott said.
“One of the reasons why the [leadership] ballot had to be brought on the week it was brought on by the proponents of a ballot was because a strong result in Canning, which is what we were going to get, would have put paid to this notion that somehow I was unelectable because of the polls.
“The interesting thing, Ray, is that if you judge things by the polls I’ve never been very popular.
“All through the days of opposition my personal ratings were poor, but it didn’t stop us almost winning – I mean, effectively we won the 2010 election, but we lost the negotiation. Then, of course, in 2013 it was a very, very emphatic thumping victory.”
Turnbull, in launching the challenge, said the Coalition had lost 30 Newspoll surveys in a row and if Abbott remained as prime minister it was “clear enough” that the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, would win the election due in 2016.
But Abbott said a leader could be “not especially popular” in personal approval ratings but still lead “a very effective political operation”.
“We saw with David Cameron in Britain just a couple of months back the British conservative government was behind in the polls the entire time, absolutely the entire five years they were behind in the polls and then they had really quite a convincing victory. I am confident that had I continued at the head of the government that’s exactly what we would have had.”
Abbott said it was “just nonsense” to think he would have saved his job by firing his treasurer, Joe Hockey, or chief of staff, Peta Credlin, in the months before the ballot. He argued that such a step would not have mollified people “who were hungry for advancement”.
“When someone is absolutely focused on a particular objective, they’re not going to be put off if they’re thrown a few human sacrifices as it were and, frankly, it’s wrong to feed this particular beast,” Abbott said.
“Joe and I were absolute blood brothers when it comes to economic policy and the idea that I could have just casually sacrificed Joe to save myself is dead wrong.
“As for my chief of staff, no one worked longer and harder for our success in opposition and in government than she did and no one’s perfect. I suppose occasionally she may have spoken brusquely to one or two people who wanted more respect, but the job of the prime minister’s chief of staff is to be strong, it’s to be tough, it’s to be focused and she did an absolutely marvellous job.”
Abbott said he did not want to criticise the new treasurer, Scott Morrison, whom he accused last week of “badly misleading people” by claiming he had warned Abbott’s office on the Friday before the leadership challenge to be on high alert.
“Certainly there was a conversation, as I understand it, between Scott and Peta Credlin,” Abbott said.
“He’s obviously put one construction on the conversation, my office put a different construction on the conversation. It’s probably a bit counter-productive to revisit all of this now, the last thing I want, Ray, to come out of this interview is a headline ‘Abbott slams Morrison’ … I’d rather focus on the good work that Scott did first of all as minister for immigration and border protection and then as minister for social services … at some point in time no doubt we’ll have a conversation and we’ll resolve those things.”
Abbott thanked Hadley and his listeners for offering strong support to him over “six good years” – four as opposition leader and two as prime minister. Abbott pointedly said that in 2009 – when he ousted Turnbull as Liberal leader – the Coalition was in “absolutely diabolical difficulty because we were making weak compromises with a bad government”.
Asked about Liberal party supporters who were angry about Turnbull’s ascent to the leadership, Abbott said it “would be terrible if people were to abandon the Coalition because of this”.
“I can appreciate that there are a lot of people out there who are really dismayed by what happened but, as I said, it would be even worse if we were to end up with a sixth prime minister in six years,” he said.
“It would be even worse if we were to end up with a CFMEU-dominated government, which we could well at the next election if people do not stay in and even if they have to do it through gritted teeth, support the Coalition, support the prime minister, support the government.”
The Nationals deputy leader, Barnaby Joyce, told the ABC’s Q&A program he would have preferred Abbott to stand down as prime minister rather than losing to Turnbull in the Liberal party room ballot.
Shorten seized on the interview, tweeting an extract in which Abbott said no policy had changed and Turnbull and Morrison were using “exactly the same phrases” that he and Hockey had used.
The Labor leader said: “Changing leaders changed nothing – even Tony Abbott thinks so.”