Politics

Australian prime minister stubbornly clings to power and offers new leadership vote

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Key Points
  • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stubbornly clung to power on Thursday as senior ministers deserted him.
  • He said he would hold a second leadership vote on Friday if he received a letter signed by the majority of the ruling Liberal party.
  • Turnbull narrowly won a leadership vote for the Liberal Party earlier this week by defeating former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Edgar Su | Reuters

Besieged Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stubbornly clung to power on Thursday, as senior ministers deserted him, saying he would hold a second leadership vote on Friday if he received a letter signed by the majority of the ruling Liberal party.

Turnbull narrowly won a leadership vote on Tuesday against former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Dutton and senior ministers on Thursday called for a second ballot.

Turnbull said if he received the letter requesting a fresh vote, he would call a party meeting on Friday at midday (0200 GMT). If a leadership spill motion was then passed, he would not stand in the vote.

"If the motion is carried, I will treat that as a vote of no confidence and I will not stand as a candidate in the ballot," Turnbull told reporters in Canberra.

Earlier, three of his senior ministers announced they had tendered their resignations. The ministers, who supported Turnbull in a leadership ballot on Tuesday against Dutton, said they had changed their position and now backed Dutton.

Turnbull narrowly won a party-room vote on Tuesday by 48 to 35 against Dutton. But the unconvincing victory left him vulnerable to another challenge.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Turnbull's key cabinet supporter who tendered his resignation, said he now believed that Dutton was the best person to lead the conservative government to the next election, due by May 2019.

"I can't ignore reality," Cormann said as he announced he was withdrawing support for Turnbull, adding five other ministers who voted for Turnbull on Tuesday had told him they were changing sides.

"I can't ignore the fact that a majority of colleagues in the Liberal Party... are of the view that there should be a change," he said.

If Dutton's supporters succeed, Turnbull will be ousted without completing three years in power, and whoever replaces him will become Australia's seventh prime minister in a decade.

Turnbull is unlikely to contest a second leadership ballot, making way for Treasurer Scott Morrison as a surprise challenger for the top job, Sky News reported on Thursday.

The prime minister came to power in a party-room coup in September 2015 over former premier Tony Abbott, who also survived an internal leadership contest before his eventual defeat.

A social liberal and multi-millionaire former merchant banker, Turnbull rode an early wave of popular support but he has struggled to appeal to conservative voters and only narrowly won an election in 2016.

The ruling Liberal-National coalition government has consistently trailed the opposition Labor party in opinion polls, but Turnbull has remained the voters' preferred prime minister over Labor leader Bill Shorten.