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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Malcolm Turnbull seeks to survive next day of Australia power plays

Right-wing populist Peter Dutton narrowly failed Tuesday to win a leadership vote but is expected to try again

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra. EPA/MICK TSIKAS
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra. EPA/MICK TSIKAS

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has to survive another day of power plays in Canberra before lawmakers head home for a two-week recess. He may not make it.

Right-wing populist Peter Dutton, who narrowly failed Tuesday to oust Mr Turnbull in a leadership vote, on Thursday said he’d asked the prime minister to hold a special meeting of party lawmakers so he could challenge again. Mr Turnbull has rebuffed the demand, the ABC network reported.

“Turnbull’s doomsday clock is ticking and it’s showing two minutes to midnight,” said Andrew Hughes, a political analyst at the Australian National University. “Even if Turnbull survives on Thursday, Dutton will use the next two weeks to voice his platform to voters and make a strong pitch to the prime minister’s wavering supporters that only he can save them.”

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Australian PM's popularity slumps as government fractures emerge

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Australia’s latest political upheaval has been driven by infighting between moderates and conservatives in the ruling Liberal party as its poll numbers slip ahead of an election due by May. That could mean yet another party-room coup in a nation that has seen five leadership changes since 2007.

“A few minutes ago I spoke with Malcolm Turnbull to advise him I believed the majority of the party room no longer supported his leadership,” Mr Dutton, the former home affairs minister, said Thursday. Since losing his first challenge on Tuesday, 48 votes to 35, he’s been rallying colleagues for a second.

The ball is now in Mr Turnbull’s court – he doesn’t need to hold a special meeting to decide the leadership unless the majority of Liberal lawmakers sign a petition calling for one. While media speculation has been rife that such a letter has been circulating, it’s yet to be delivered to the prime minister.

The political drama weighed on the Australian dollar, which led losses among Group-of-10 currencies on Wednesday. The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index of stocks fell for a second straight day yesterday.

Mr Turnbull himself came to power in 2015 in a party coup before winning an election the next year with a razor-thin majority. He’s been fighting to avoid getting ousted, urging his lawmakers to hold line and reject the lure of turning to Mr Dutton.

After abandoning signature policies this week designed to restore energy security and give tax relief to big businesses, Mr Turnbull faces pressure to outline a new plan to put his ruling Liberal-National coalition in a winning position before the next vote. Opinion polls point to a win by the main opposition Labor Party led by former unionist Bill Shorten, who has vowed to boost health and education spending.

Wednesday was full of drama, with rumours flying over who had more support. Flanked by key backers treasurer Scott Morrison and finance minister Mathias Cormann, Mr Turnbull, 63, told reporters he was seeking to ensure the government’s stability and he remained leader by “the iron laws of arithmetic.”

Mr Dutton, 47, used a raft of television and radio interviews to outline his populist policy manifesto, including removing a tax on electricity bills for families and pensioners, a wide-ranging investigation into energy companies, and cuts to immigration to ease city congestion. The former policeman is seen as a leader of the party’s right wing, and as the minister in charge of immigration has risen to prominence as a staunch supporter of the government’s hard-line policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps.

Updated: August 23, 2018 02:49 AM

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