SENIOR Liberals including the leadership contenders Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott say the party should dump Work Choices, the policy that cost them so dearly under John Howard's reign.
Frustrations with Mr Howard for staying too long as leader boiled over yesterday, as former senior ministers Alexander Downer and Nick Minchin revealed they had asked him to stand aside as prime minister.
Mr Turnbull and Brendan Nelson emerged as the frontrunners for the Liberal leadership as the disintegration of the old guard continued apace with the resignation of the Nationals leader, Mark Vaile.
"Robert Menzies would be turning in his grave if he saw the condition his beloved party was in today," said Michael Kroger, the Victorian Liberal Party identity and close friend of Peter Costello, who has abandoned his long-term ambition to take over from Mr Howard.
Mr Kroger said the party was at its lowest point since it was founded. It was in government nowhere and its organisation was in bad shape.
Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott - as well as the former minister Helen Coonan - agreed that Labor had a mandate to abolish Work Choices and that the Liberal Party had to distance itself from the policy. The former minister Christopher Pyne, who will square off against Andrew Robb and possibly Julie Bishop for the deputy leadership, said: "There's no need for us to hang on to old shibboleths. The Liberal Party is not wedded to policies from the previous government."
On the ABC's Lateline last night, Mr Pyne agreed Mr Howard had stayed too long. "No Liberal candidate could look in the mirror and say the leadership of John Howard was not the central factor on Saturday," Mr Pyne said.
Senior Liberals also agreed the Coalition had to abandon its opposition to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Senator Minchin, the Liberal Party powerbroker and former minister, revealed he had urged Mr Howard to step down in March last year when he marked his 10th anniversary as prime minister. It is understood he pressed Mr Downer to urge Mr Howard to stand down at the time, but Mr Downer was reluctant to do so.
Mr Downer did not start pressuring Mr Howard until this year, and he said last night he did so "more than once". But he added that Peter Costello never had the numbers to defeat Mr Howard.
Senator Minchin said yesterday: "It's always difficult to win five terms, and so I did seek in him [Mr Howard] retiring on top at the 10th anniversary of our government in order to ensure he did not face what regrettably has now occurred."In contrast to the turmoil of his opponents, the prime minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, got on with the business of government - and warned the Senate not to stand in his way because he had a clear mandate for change.
Mr Rudd said his education revolution would be the priority of his first cabinet meeting next week. He also announced a meeting with the premiers within three months to discuss health, and has already received advice about ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.
Abolishing Work Choices would be the first legislative action next year, he said, and some Liberals who are threatening to oppose it, such as Senator George Brandis, would do so at their peril.
"I thought the Australian people had a fairly clear message on that only a couple of days ago," Mr Rudd said.
Unlike his colleagues, Senator Brandis says Mr Rudd has no mandate to get rid of Work Choices.
While Mr Howard continued to lie low, a tearful Mr Vaile accepted his share of the blame for the election loss and stepped down as Nationals leader. The party will select a new leader this week.
Coalition sources said Mr Abbott did not have a hope in the Liberal leadership contest, and the fight would be between Mr Turnbull and Dr Nelson, who has spent years cultivating the back bench. Dr Nelson and Mr Abbott declared themselves candidates for the leadership yesterday.
Mr Abbott, renowned for offending people, lauded his "reasonably good people skills" as an attribute. He said his aggressive nature was required to hold Labor to account and he would try to end the "destructive" factionalism in the party, especially in NSW.
Mr Turnbull welcomed the competition as eagerness to renew. "We've been walloped by the electorate, but we have got to get off the mat and get started," Mr Turnbull said. "We can win in 2010, but we can't waste time." Mr Turnbull, who argued unsuccessfully in cabinet for the Kyoto Protocol to be ratified, said Mr Rudd had a mandate to do so, and "I don't think anybody can reasonably oppose that".
Mr Downer, a former Coalition leader and foreign minister, said he was not enthusiastic about another stretch in Opposition and would not seek a leadership position. He is likely to move to the back bench to consider whether to remain in politics. Joe Hockey, who had responsibility for Work Choices in the government, ruled out a leadership tilt, but said he would serve on the front bench.
Bitter that the party did not heed his warnings, Peter Costello will stay as a backbencher until he finds a job in the private sector.
Dr Nelson, a veteran of the Howard era, took a chip at Mr Turnbull's three years in politics. Dr Nelson said he had both the energy and the experience to lead.
Mr Rudd will announce his ministry this week and yesterday had a 15-minute phone call with Maxine McKew, who deposed Mr Howard in Bennelong.