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Australian PM Turnbull survives party leadership challenge

© AFP | Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, was forced to shelve plans to embed carbon emissions targets in law after a revolt by fellow Liberal politicians Monday

SYDNEY (AFP) - 

Embattled Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull narrowly survived a leadership challenge from within his own party Tuesday as discontent with his rule boiled over less than a year before national elections.

Turnbull, considered a moderate, declared his position vacant at a Liberal party meeting to force the issue after rampant speculation that the more hardline Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton wanted his job, with the government consistently trailing the Labor opposition in opinion polls.

The disunity came to a head on Monday when Turnbull was forced to shelve plans to embed carbon emissions targets in law after a revolt by fellow Liberal politicians.

Party whip Nola Marino told reporters Dutton challenged but Turnbull won 48-35.

"The result of that ballot was Malcolm Turnbull was elected leader of the Liberal Party by a margin of 48-35, with Peter Dutton as the other candidate," she said.

There was also an election for deputy leader. The incumbent, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was the only one who threw her hat in the ring and she held onto the role.

Asked what Turnbull said after winning, Marino replied the prime minister "thanked his colleagues for their support and will get on with the business now of governing in the interests of all Australians".

On Monday Turnbull had declared he had Dutton's "full support".

After losing Dutton, a former police officer who ran a powerful department that oversees the country's domestic spy service, border force and national police, quit and moved to the backbench.

John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal party who is now with the Australian National University's school of public policy, said Turnbull was wounded and another challenge was likely within weeks.

"This was a trial run and I expect them (Dutton and supporters) to do it again in September," he told AFP, adding that it was all about "revenge and ego".

He pinpointed former prime minister Tony Abbott, who Turnbull ousted in a 2015 party room coup, as a key player behind the move.

"Abbott wants to get even and Turnbull is now in the tightest of positions. He must stand up for his key polices in the national interest and get out there and argue the case.

"When he was elected people expected him to stand up for something, but all he has done with major policies is kick them down the road," he added.

- Vocal critic -

It is the latest chapter in a turbulent period for Australian politics.

Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010. He later returned the favour and stormed back to power in 2013 shortly before losing the election to Abbott's Liberal/National coalition.

Abbott was then unseated by Turnbull. He is now a vocal backbencher and critic of his successor.

Abbott was in charge when Canberra agreed to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2030 as part of the so-called Paris Agreement. But he has since railed against the commitment he made.

He argued it should not be enshrined in law as part of the government's new energy policy, known as the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), with consumers facing soaring electricity prices.

Several right-wingers allied to Abbott had threatened to vote with the opposition to block the NEG, and with the government only having a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, it was doomed in its current form. Turnbull caved in, triggering the leadership ballot.

Disquiet with Turnbull has been building in recent months, with the government trailing Labor in 38 consecutive opinion polls.

The latest on Monday showed it lagging even further behind -- 45 to 55 percent on a two-party basis -- with national elections due by the middle of next year.

© 2018 AFP