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Australian PM says will hold meeting to determine party leadership

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton narrowly lost a leadership vote against Turnbull on Tuesday sparking an internecine battle in the Liberal party ahead of an election due by May 2019.

FILE: Malcolm Turnbull. Picture: AFP.

CANBERRA – Embattled Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he will soon call a meeting to determine the leadership of the ruling Liberal party, after receiving a letter from the majority of party members requesting a change of leader on Friday.

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton narrowly lost a leadership vote against Turnbull on Tuesday sparking an internecine battle in the Liberal party ahead of an election due by May 2019.

Under intense pressure to call a second vote, Turnbull offered to call a party meeting if he received a letter signed by the majority of party members. Turnbull said that threshold has now been met.

“I have just been provided with a request for a meeting of the parliamentary Liberal party,” Turnbull tweeted.

“It has 43 signatures. As soon as they are verified..., which should not take long, the meeting will be called.”

If the meeting votes to vacant the leadership, Turnbull said he will not contest the ballot, leaving Dutton a confirmed candidate, with the country’s treasurer and foreign minister also likely to nominate.

Australian media have reported that Treasurer Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would contest a leadership vote, with Morrison the stronger contender.

If Australia changes prime minister on Friday it will be the sixth leader in less than a decade and none have served a full term.

Dutton’s election prospects were aided after the country’s senior legal adviser said the former minister is eligible to remain in parliament.

Turnbull had sought legal advise on whether Dutton could remain in parliament over reports he financially benefited from government funding, which is not allowed under the constitution.

“In my opinion the better view is that Mr Dutton is not incapable of sitting as a member of the House of Representatives,” Australia’s Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue wrote in his judgment seen by Reuters.

But he also qualified: “I consider there to be some risk.”

The political uncertainty saw the Australian dollar AUD=D4 down 0.1% on Friday, after falling 1.4% on Thursday, the worst performing major currency on the day.

Australian shares are down more than 1.5% since the first leadership challenge this week.

Turnbull came to power in a party-room coup in September 2015. A social liberal and multi-millionaire former merchant banker, he has struggled to appeal to conservative voters and only narrowly won a general election in 2016.

The ruling Liberal-National coalition government has consistently trailed the opposition Labour party in opinion polls, but Turnbull has remained the voters’ preferred prime minister over Labour leader Bill Shorten.

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