Aussie PM holds on for now amid leadership crisis

Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull clung to power on Thursday as senior ministers deserted him.

It bought time for other challengers to spend Thursday night on the phone canvassing colleagues to mount a serious challenge for the Liberal party leadership against Peter Dutton.

Many Liberal MPs openly admit they don't have a clue about who will be the prime minister and leader of their party by early afternoon.

"You can't demand support from your people and then when the time comes for your support, decide that you've had enough of the show", former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said.

Adding pressure on rebel lawmakers, Turnbull said he would resign from parliament if he lost the leadership, threatening the government's one-seat majority.

After a morning of tumult, Turnbull scheduled a press conference, saying he was prepared to call a party room meeting for midday tomorrow, but this would be conditional on seeing there was majority support for a party meeting.

"I can not underline too much how important it is that anyone who seeks to be prime minister of Australia is eligible to be a member of parliament".

In a thinly-veiled swipe at his predecessor Tony Abbott, Mr Turnbull said history proved sitting on the backbench was not a good option.

Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield made their positions public on Thursday in a major blow to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's chances of surviving his current political crisis.

Mr Turnbull won the party-room vote 48-35 but the narrow margin of the victory made another challenge nearly certain in a country that has earned a reputation for a revolving door of political leaders, with six prime ministers since 2009.

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However, there is speculation Mr Dutton may withdraw the petition that had been circulating and instead call for the party whip to call the meeting, given three contenders were now likely. "A lot of things I thought I'd only ever see again in history books have awakened in our present day since the Trump transition", he said.

While Dutton is still seen as the front runner for the challenge when it inevitably occurs late Thursday or even Friday - it's now being reported that Treasurer Scott Morrison has thrown his hat in the ring and will also challenge for the leadership in the next spill.

"I know I represent and speak for the vast majority in the community who view the Labor and Liberals' treatment of the office of the Prime Minister as a revolving door and this has to stop, because it is overshadowing the work of running the country".

Despite Mr Turnbull offering an olive branch, further political instability is all but guaranteed in the final two days Parliament sits before it breaks until September.

But it played into the momentum that any effort to bring down a prime minister needs.

Labor has released its own legal advice from prominent lawyer Bret Walker SC, who said it was his opinion that Mr Dutton was "not entitled to continue to sit" in the parliament.

The vote to refer Dutton to Australia's High Court was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives by 69 votes to 68.

Mr Dutton, a hardline conservative who carved out his reputation overseeing Australia's harsh immigration policy, is unpopular with moderate voters, raising the possibility that a third, centrist candidate might still emerge.

The would-be prime minister has provided his own advice, from a former Solicitor-General, clearing him of any breach.

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