TONY ABBOTT is battling to contain growing dissent in his ranks with Liberal MPs threatening openly to either cross the floor or abstain to ensure the passage of a government bill deregulating the wheat market.
Already facing deep unrest among WA Liberals over the policy about-face led by the Nationals, which is designed to stop or frustrate deregulation, Mr Abbott now faces the prospect of the NSW Liberal MP Alby Schultz abstaining from the vote, due within weeks.
Mr Abbott sought to pull Mr Schultz and others into line yesterday, saying ''you should not leap to any conclusions about what anyone is going to do''.
But Mr Schultz told the Herald he would not be swayed and was honour-bound to support original Coalition policy to deregulate the market following the wheat-for-weapons scandal.
While he would not cross the floor to support Labor, he said he would abstain to deny the Coalition a precious vote in what is expected to be a tight contest.
''We made the decision to deregulate the wheat market when we were in government. I voted for it then,'' he said.
''The rabid agrarian socialists out here, particularly in the Riverina, have been attacking me. But I am not compromising my principles, my integrity and my honour on this.
''I will not support any move by my party that may reinstate the corrupt process.''
In 2008, following the wheat-for-weapons scandal, the Australian Wheat Board lost its monopoly over bulk wheat exports. An independent statutory authority, Wheat Exports Australia, was set up to oversee wheat exports.
This body is due for abolition, leading to full deregulation. But opposition has sprung up among east coast Nationals and some Liberals.
In order to prevent a damaging split, Mr Abbott and his deputy, Julie Bishop, convinced the Liberals, especially those in WA who support deregulation, to accept a Nationals amendment which would ''defer'' the abolition of WEA for two years.
But they are having trouble holding the line.
The WA National Tony Crook, who only recently left the crossbenches to sit with the Nationals, has said he will vote with Labor.
This means the government needs at least three more votes from the crossbenches.
The Greens MP Adam Bandt will vote with the Coalition against deregulation while the others are undecided.
The NSW independent Tony Windsor has set up a meeting in Tuesday with the Agriculture Minister, Joe Ludwig, and industry representatives.
Mr Windsor is likely to support the abolition of the WEA but only if some type of authority, like an ombudsman, is established to monitor the quality of exports and ensure equal access to ports for east coast grain growers.