Tony Abbott says homeless should be moved on with 'great vigour if necessary'

Former PM accuses NSW Liberal government of ‘losing its nerve’ and says premier Gladys Berejiklian is responsible, not the lord mayor of Sydney

Tony Abbott has criticised the NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian accusing her government of “losing its nerve” by refusing to clear homeless people camping in Sydney’s Martin Place.

The former prime minister said the group of homeless people camped in tents in the city’s CBD were “obstructing people going about their daily business” and should be moved on peacefully, but “with great vigour if necessary”.

On Tuesday, Berejiklian said homeless people sleeping rough in the city centre made her “completely uncomfortable”.

She said the “tent city” outside the NSW Parliament House – which contains a dozen shelters, a 24-hour community kitchen and an alcohol and drug exclusion zone – had not been constructed “for the right reasons” and should be cleared.

She told reporters the residents had refused the offer of alternative accommodation and called on the lord mayor, Clover Moore, to “move them on”.

However, Abbott became an unusual defender of Moore in an interview with 2GB on Wednesday afternoon, saying it was not the lord mayor’s role to move the homeless on.

“I’m pleased to say it is the premier, not the lord mayor, who is in charge of the police, who is responsible for law and order in NSW, including Sydney,” Abbott said.

Abbott echoed Berejiklian’s claim that the homeless were not there for the “right reason” and said they should never have been allowed to set up the camp.

“If you are genuinely homeless, there are services you can access, there are places you can go. This is a protest, that’s all it is, a political protest,” he said.

“Frankly, a government that allows a political protest to disrupt people’s daily lives, to interfere with the ordinary operations of the great city of Sydney is a government that has lost its nerve, and that’s why it’s important the police deal with this appropriately and swiftly.”

The NSW family and community services minister, Pru Goward, had also sought to blame Moore and the Sydney city council for failing to remove the tents that have been erected in the Martin Place forecourt since December.

“I call on the mayor of this city to do so,” Goward said in a statement. “The public expect her to act.”

Moore has responded to the criticism of the council, saying that the state government had fostered the homelessness crisis in Sydney and controlled “virtually all the levers of power and responsibility”.

“What we’re seeing in Martin Place is the direct consequence of decades of gutless inaction from successive state governments. Instead of investing in more social housing in our area, they’ve kicked people out of their homes and sold them to the highest bidder.

“The fact is you can’t solve homelessness without housing – we need long-term solutions and we urgently need the NSW government to step up and do their bit.”

Moore said the NSW government could solve the problem by reopening the Sirius public housing building to house all of those in Martin Place, plus support a plan for a second Common Ground development.

On Wednesday, homeless people living in Martin Place challenged Berejiklian, to “come and talk” and said they were there because of a lack of affordable housing, domestic violence and the need to be close to family and vital services.

Guardian staff

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