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Turnbull seeks to survive next day of Australia power plays

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.

[CANBERRA] 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 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."

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, Mr Turnbull's 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 rumors 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.

Human rights activists have accused Mr Dutton of stoking racial division by urging a crackdown on "African gang violence" in Victoria state. He also criticised Alan Joyce for using his position as chief executive officer of Qantas Airways Ltd to advocate for legalising same-sex marriage.

Mr Dutton, whose switch to the backbench after resigning from Cabinet on Tuesday allows him to openly canvass for support, sought to show off his softer side in a bid to appeal to more voters.

"I just came from a middle-class family," Mr Dutton said in one radio interview. "My dad was a bricklayer, mum worked a second job so she could pay for school fees, so we didn't have a privileged upbringing at all. We were brought up in a wonderful family environment, so family is incredibly important to me."

In a separate radio interview, he revealed his more ruthless side: Asked if he was "working the phones" to win more support against Mr Turnbull, Mr Dutton said: "Of course I am. I'm speaking to colleagues."

Should the tide turn against Mr Turnbull, moderates who back him may field their own challenger in a bid to ensure Mr Dutton doesn't claim the top job. While Mr Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have been mooted as potential candidates, both have said they're not running for the leadership.

Several senior Liberal lawmakers, including trade minister Steven Ciobo and health minister Greg Hunt, offered their resignations on Tuesday evening after backing Mr Dutton in the ballot. International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells quit, saying the traditionally centre-right government has drifted too far to the left under Mr Turnbull.

"My conservative base has been very concerned about the direction of the government," she told reporters on Wednesday. "I think it's very important for any government, particularly a coalition government, to have the appropriate balance of moderates and conservatives."

Mr Turnbull's authority over the party has always been in doubt. The self-made millionaire and former Rhodes scholar, who led an unsuccessful push for Australia to become a republic in 1999, is regarded as too liberal by the party's right wing.

He has tried to appease conservative forces in the party since seizing the leadership from Tony Abbott in a party ballot in 2015, retreating from some of his most strongly held convictions such as tough action against climate change. Yet those same people are now trying to tear him down, and voters have become disillusioned with his policy reversals.

Mr Dutton's economic credentials have also been called into question. On Wednesday he announced a plan to scrap levies from energy bills, prompting a top business lobby to warn such as move risks distorting the tax system. He's also facing media speculation he may have breached constitutional law by being a beneficiary of a trust that owns a childcare company and receives government subsidies.

"Whoever leads the government to the next election, this instability looks terrible for Australia," said Mr Hughes from ANU. "It makes us look like we are too focused on short-term, personality-based politics and we're willing to ignore voters' hunger for good policy."


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