Source AP ©

John Howard heads off 'panic' pre-election leadership speculation

Australian Prime Minister John Howard headed off rumblings of a leadership challenge Wednesday and warned colleagues that replacing him weeks before an election would be "a sign of panic."

Howard stated his case for remaining prime minister with an election due this year at a meeting of lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Party at Parliament House.

"There was absolutely no evidence in that party meeting of any desire on the part of the party for any change in the current leadership team," Howard told Sydney radio 2GB.

"My view is ... making a change now would be seen by the public as a sign of panic," he added.

Polls throughout the year indicate Howard is leading his 11-year-old coalition government to a landslide defeat.

Former supporters are saying the 68-year-old political veteran should retire, while the media has reported a series of leaks about a rift within the ruling center-right coalition over his leadership.

Howard confirmed that he asked Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, a trusted ally, to canvass the opinions of senior ministers last week about whether they still supported him as leader despite the poor polling.

But he declined to say how many ministers opted for a change of leader.

Howard's likely successor and Liberal deputy, Peter Costello, snuffed out the potential for a leadership change ahead of the election by declaring his support for the current leadership team.

"The team and the program is the key to win this election," Costello, the treasurer, told reporters, referring to the leadership team and Howard's policy agenda. Howard was the leader of that team, he said.

Howard put would-be challengers on notice when he told reporters Tuesday that: "I have never run from a fight before and I don't intend to do so now."

Health Minister Tony Abbott said the ministers who attended the crisis meeting with Downer last week in a hotel room in Sydney near where Howard was hosting a summit of Pacific Rim leaders had agreed to stick with the leader as "the best bet for the government."

"Looking at these polls, some people thought, well, maybe ... a change might be for the better," Abbott told Nine Network television. "The collective view is: No, a change would be for the worst."

But a report in The Australian national newspaper Wednesday suggested that most of Howard's Cabinet wanted him to quit.

"Why did he ask for the soundings if he was not prepared to act on the conclusion?" an unnamed minister was quoted as asking.

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd led his Labor Party's attack on Howard in Parliament Wednesday, exploiting ministers' wavering support for their prime minister.

"If after 11 years in office the prime minister can no longer effectively govern his party, how can he now claim to continue to be able to govern the country?" Rudd asked.

Howard, who is battling to hold his own Sydney electorate, replied that voters "will decide not only my future, but the future of the leader of the opposition."