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Turnbull's leadership under pressure as support plunges in poll

[CANBERRA] Malcolm Turnbull's government slumped in an opinion poll, heaping further pressure on the Australian prime minister amid mounting speculation he will face a challenge to his leadership from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Mr Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition trails the main Labor opposition 45 per cent to 55 per cent, according to a Fairfax-Ipsos poll released on Monday. The 10 percentage point margin has widened from two points a month ago.

The poor poll result comes as Mr Turnbull tries to defuse a revolt over a key energy policy from some backbench lawmakers, who are urging him to abandon Australia's Paris Agreement emissions target and provide more support for the coal industry. While former policeman Mr Dutton, 47, on Saturday pledged support for the prime minister, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he'd have sufficient support from party colleagues to topple the prime minister if he mounted a challenge.

The party infighting over energy policy risks tipping the nation into a renewed period of political chaos and revolving door leadership that's seen Australia switch prime ministers five times since 2007. The polls indicate Labor will easily win office in elections due in May.

Mr Turnbull, 63, has struggled for policy traction and political authority since winning the July 2016 election by a razor-thin margin. His bid to reduce company taxes for Australia's biggest businesses has stalled in Parliament and he may abandon the cuts this week, the Australian Financial Review reported Monday.

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It's no surprise that energy policy is again the fuse for the latest round of infighting. A decade of political dithering and climate policy missteps has left the nation with spiraling electricity prices and unreliable supply.

Mr Turnbull's National Energy Guarantee seeks to deliver affordable and reliable energy while reducing emissions, without subsidies, taxes, emissions-trading schemes or carbon prices. A chief critic of the plan is former leader Tony Abbott, who Mr Turnbull toppled in a party-room vote in 2015 to become prime minister.

To stave off a revolt, Mr Turnbull has backed down on a plan to legislate Australia's Paris Agreement commitment to cut emissions by at least 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Instead of being locked in legislation, the emissions goal will instead be set by regulation - effectively by the stroke of a minister's pen.

On Sunday, Mr Turnbull also vowed the government would penalise power companies that failed to deliver lower prices and enforce caps to electricity costs. He'll seek support for the changes at a party-room meeting in Canberra on Tuesday.

Asked if he'd lost confidence in Mr Turnbull's leadership, Mr Abbott on Monday called for an energy policy the government could take to the election and win.

"It's not about personalities," he told reporters. "It's not about him, it's not about me. It's about what's going to give Australians the best possible energy system that delivers affordable, reliable power."


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