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Australian PM urges unity after surviving leadership challenge

Embattled Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pleaded for unity Tuesday after narrowly surviving a leadership challenge as discontent with his rule boiled over less than a year before national elections.

Turnbull, considered a moderate, declared his position vacant at a Liberal party meeting to force the issue after rampant speculation that the more hardline Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton wanted his job, with the government trailing the Labour opposition in opinion polls.

The disunity came to a head on Monday when Turnbull was forced to shelve plans to embed carbon emissions targets in law after a revolt by fellow Liberal politicians.

Turnbull won the ballot 48-35, but the episode seriously undermined his position.

“It is really important that we put these differences behind us and get on with our job of looking after the 25-million Australians who have put us here,” he said afterwards.

“We know that disunity undermines the ability of any government to get its job done, and unity is absolutely critical.”

There was also an election for deputy leader. The incumbent, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was the only one who threw her hat in the ring and she held onto the role.

Dutton, a former police officer who ran a powerful department that oversees the country’s domestic spy service, border force and national police, quit the cabinet and moved to the backbench.

Treasurer Scott Morrison will assume his job until a replacement is appointed.

John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal party who is now with the Australian National University’s school of public policy, said Turnbull was wounded and another challenge was likely within weeks.

“This was a trial run and I expect them (Dutton and supporters) to do it again in September,” hes aid, adding that it was all about “revenge and ego”.

He pinpointed former prime minister Tony Abbott, who Turnbull ousted in a 2015 party room coup, as a key player behind the move.

“Abbott wants to get even and Turnbull is now in the tightest of positions. He must stand up for his key polices in the national interest and get out there and argue the case.”

Vocal critic

Dutton refused to rule out another tilt at the top job, saying he made his move in the belief that he had the best chance of steering the party to an election victory.

“What is my next step, what is my job from here? My job is to make sure I can prosecute the sort of messages I spoke about and that is the only thing I am focussed on,” he said.

It is the latest chapter in a turbulent period for Australian politics.

Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010. He later returned the favour and stormed back to power in 2013 shortly before losing the election to Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition.

Abbott was then unseated by Turnbull and is now a vocal backbencher and critic of his successor.

Abbott was in charge when Canberra agreed to cut emissions by 26% by 2030 as part of the so-called Paris Agreement. But he has since railed against the commitment he made.

He argued it should not be enshrined in law as part of the government’s new energy policy, known as the National Energy Guarantee, with consumers facing soaring electricity prices.

Several right-wingers allied to Abbott had threatened to vote with the opposition to block the NEG, and with the government only having a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, it was doomed in its current form. Turnbull caved in, triggering the leadership ballot.

Disquiet with Turnbull had been building for some time, with the government trailing Labour in 38 consecutive opinion polls.

The latest on Monday showed it lagging even further behind — 45 to 55% on a two-party basis — with national elections due by the middle of next year.

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Martin Parry
Martin Parry
AFP News Editor for Australia/New Zealand/Pacific

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