Abbott signals wish to stay in Parliament for six more years
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Abbott signals wish to stay in Parliament for six more years

Tony Abbott wants to stay in Parliament for at least six more years and is open-minded about an "unlikely" return to the leadership if the Liberal Party drafts him.

In an exclusive interview with Fairfax Media, the former prime minister also said he had no intention of spending less time on the national stage, and predicted Liberal Party forces plotting to oust him from the blue ribbon Sydney seat of Warringah would "struggle" to find a candidate to beat him.

Mr Abbott's future is under the spotlight after one in three local members last week voted against his endorsement to contest the next election. Mr Abbott has dubbed the protest vote a "bit of post-Turnbull turbulence" but his enemies consider it the first shot in a battle to replace him with a moderate candidate. Other potential scenarios include a swing against him in Warringah, or returning to Canberra after the next election to rebuild a shattered Liberal Party.

Tony Abbott at the 2016 campaign launch for the seat of Warringah.

Tony Abbott at the 2016 campaign launch for the seat of Warringah.

The 60-year-old is not actively plotting a return to the leadership but some MPs believe he could become opposition leader if the Coalition loses and Prime Minister Scott Morrison decides against staying as leader.

"You can only come back as an ex-leader, certainly as an ex-PM, by way of a draft," Mr Abbott said. "Now is a draft likely? No it's not, because in this business there's usually competition, pretty fierce competition.

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"It's an unlikely hypothesis and the thing is that under Morrison, I think we now have a fighting chance of victory. I think that Scott has made a very strong start to his time as leader, and my focus and I'm sure everyone else's focus right now is doing our best to win. Let's not speculate on the distant future, and an unlikely future."

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While former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and several other Coalition MPs have urged Mr Abbott to leave Parliament, he said he was "relatively young and strong" and had not given "a nanosecond's thought" to retiring.

Mr Abbott has comfortably held the northern beaches seat since 1994 but locals, political strategists and some of the veteran MP's own supporters predict he may struggle to retain it should a high-profile independent candidate emerge like Kerryn Phelps in the Wentworth byelection.

"Is Warringah likely to be lost by the Liberal Party? I don't think so. But can it be taken for granted? Absolutely not," Mr Abbott said. "You can be pretty confident that the local campaign will be very, very seriously prosecuted by me and the local party."

Mr Abbott dismissed the suggestion he had spent too much time on national policy and politics instead of the needs of constituents.

"I don't think it's been out of whack at all. In the end the important thing is to be an effective local member and at the same time to be an effective national advocate. I think people understand that you can discharge your local duties without having to ignore everything else."

Asked whether he expected to be eventually challenged by a moderate Liberal Party candidate, Mr Abbott said: "I think the only way that there would be change is if they were to find a candidate who is better than I am, and I've got to say I think they'll struggle.

"I can't imagine that any time in the near future - and when I talk about the near future I certainly include this term's Parliament and the next Parliament - I can't imagine at any time in the life of the next couple of parliaments they'd find a candidate who'd come close to me in terms of ability to represent the seat and make an impact on the national debate."

He also blasted Liberal Party members for inflating the size of the 30-68 vote against him last Friday.

"Our Parliament and our political parties are populated these days by people who will smile and smile to your face, and soon as your back is turned will peddle all sorts of dreadful judgments and lies to others, including journalists," he said.

"This integrity deficit is killing our public life and as soon as people remember that it's character that counts in the long run, and not whether your enemy is portrayed badly in a newspaper article or on a television program, the better for all concerned."

Bevan Shields is the federal editor and Canberra bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra