CANBERRA - Australia’s beleaguered prime minister warned he will quit Parliament on Friday if his disgruntled party continues to try to oust him, forcing a by-election that could cost the government its single-seat majority or push his successor into immediately calling general elections.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is under mounting pressure from supporter of his rival, former Cabinet minister Peter Dutton, to hold a leadership ballot of lawmakers in their conservative Liberal Party on Thursday.
Turnbull bought himself time by announcing he would hold a party meeting on Friday, but only if a majority of at least 43 lawmakers in the party signed a petition requesting a meeting.
If that meeting wanted a leadership ballot, Turnbull said he would not contest his job and would not stay in Parliament.
“What we have witnessed at the moment is a very deliberate effort to pull the Liberal Party further to the right,” Turnbull told reporters. “A minority has by a process of intimidation … persuaded people that the only way to stop the insurgency is to give in to it. … I have never given in to bullies.”
Senior ministers Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield had earlier told Turnbull that he had lost his government’s support and must hold a ballot quickly. It was a major blow to Turnbull’s chances of staying in office.
Turnbull had defeated Dutton 48-35 in a surprise vote on Tuesday. Turnbull initiated the ballot in the hope of ending speculation that his government had lost faith in him in the face of poor opinion polling.
Dutton is described by supporters as a pragmatic legislator who gets things done and by detractors as a racist who demonizes refugees. If he became prime minister, he said he would focus on lowering electricity prices, cutting immigration to ease population pressures and boost water investment to help drought-stricken farmers.
The turmoil came to a head after months of poor opinion polls and a revolt by fellow Liberal politicians on Monday against the prime minister’s plans to embed carbon emissions targets in law at a time of soaring power prices.
With its heavy use of coal-fired power and relatively small population of 25 million, Australia is considered one of the world’s worst per capita greenhouse gas polluters.
Dutton and his supporters, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who once described climate change as “absolute crap,” argue that keeping power prices down is more important than meeting Canberra’s commitment to slash carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2030.
Cormann, the finance minister, had publicly stated his support for Turnbull on Wednesday, but on Thursday said Dutton should lead the government.
“I was wanting to continue to support Malcolm Turnbull for years to come as leader of the Liberal Party. But I can’t ignore reality,” Cormann told reporters.
“When I have five Cabinet colleagues telling me that they supported Malcolm on Tuesday … but they have changed their position, that is not something that I can ignore,” he added.
Media reports said other lawmakers were considering running for Turnbull’s job, including Treasurer Scott Morrison.
Dutton supporters on Wednesday circulated a petition among Liberal Party lawmakers in a bid to force Turnbull to hold a ballot. But they failed to get the minimum 43 signatures that were required.
The opposition narrowly lost a vote in Parliament that would have sent Dutton to court to determine whether he is eligible to be a prime minister. The vote to refer Dutton to the High Court was defeated 69-68 in the House of Representatives before it adjourned.
Dutton has released legal advice that his family’s ownership of two child-care centers that received federal funding does not breach a constitutional ban on lawmakers having a pecuniary interest in an agreement with the public service. Some constitutional lawyers say there are areas of doubt.
Such a pending court case could scare lawmakers away from supporting Dutton in a leadership ballot. Government lawyers are investigating his case to see if there were issues for the High Court to determine.
Turnbull said he wanted the government’s legal advice on Dutton’s eligibility presented to Friday’s meeting.
No Australian prime minister has lasted a full three-year term since Prime Minister John Howard lost power in 2007 after more than 11 years in office. They have all been thrown out of power by their own parties amid poor opinion polling in a trend of political instability that divides parties and angers voters.