Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, left, leaves after a party room meeting at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull survived a leadership challenge, defeating Dutton in an internal government ballot that is unlikely to settle questions of his support. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

Australia's Turnbull survives leadership vote; Dutton leaves

August 20, 2018 - 7:41 pm

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull survived a leadership challenge Tuesday, defeating a senior minister in an internal government ballot that is unlikely to settle questions of his support.

His challenger, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, resigned from Cabinet after the vote but the amount of support he gained a day after downplaying the possibility of a challenge surprised many commentators.

Turnbull called the vote at a meeting of conservative Liberal Party lawmakers as speculation mounted about his support within the government. Government lawmaker Nola Marino said Turnbull won 48 votes to 35. One lawmaker abstained and another was away on sick leave.

Dutton supporters say the former police drug squad detective could have amassed enough support to successfully challenge for the leadership on Thursday before Parliament takes a two-week break and lawmakers won't gather again until Sept. 10.

Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne, believes lawmakers are abandoning Turnbull because they fear he will lead them to a crushing defeat at elections due by May.

The longer Turnbull remains prime minister, the worse the government's opinion polling was likely to become, Economou said.

"Voters will do what they always do — they react very badly to internal tensions, to disunity," Economou said.

Before the ballot, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg had warned government colleagues that they would lose popularity if they dumped Turnbull.

Frydenberg said voters were tired of governments repeatedly changing their prime ministers. Ousting Turnbull would be a sixth leadership change in less than 11 years. The center-left opposition Labor Party elected one leader, Keven Rudd, twice during a chaotic six years in power.

"There is a high transaction cost from changing leaders. Labor's seen that, we've seen that," Frydenberg told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "I believe that Malcolm Turnbull is the right person to lead us to the next election."

Turnbull made a major concession to his opponents within his party on Monday by abandoning plans to legislate to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The concession avoided the most conservative government lawmakers voting against the legislation in Parliament, openly undermining his authority.

But former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was replaced by Turnbull in a ballot of government lawmakers in 2015, was not convinced that Turnbull had given up on reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels through legislation.

"What we want to know is: Where are this prime minister's convictions?" Abbott told the ABC outside Parliament House on Monday night.

"It was a conversion of convenience this morning," Abbott added.

Damian Drum, a lawmaker in The Nationals' party, a junior coalition partner, called on Abbott to resign from Parliament instead of destabilizing the government.

"He vowed that he wouldn't be a wrecker," Drum told reporters of Abbott. "That's exactly what he's been — a wrecker, and he needs to get out of the joint."

Frydenbeg said Cabinet ministers on Monday night expressed their support for Turnbull, including Dutton, who was a staunch ally of Abbott.

Deputy Liberal Party Leader Julie Bishop retained her position unopposed at Tuesday's ballot.

Australia has gone through an extraordinary period of political instability since Prime Minister John Howard lost power in 2007 after more than 11 years in office.

Turnbull would next month become Australia's longest serving prime minister since Howard, having held the office for three years and four days.

The government has trailed Labor in most opinion polls since the last election in 2016. Australians are due to hold a general election early next year.