By Colin Packham
CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the resignations of seven Cabinet members who backed a rival for leadership, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Wednesday, as he seeks to quell a renewed bid by a conservative challenger.
Turnbull survived a leadership bid from former home affairs minister Peter Dutton in a party-room vote on Tuesday but the narrow margin of his victory heightened speculation that his leadership days were numbered.
Expectations that Turnbull would soon face another challenge, possibly within days, were stoked when eight Cabinet ministers backed Dutton.
Turnbull is desperate to unite the fractured Liberal Party, the senior party in the government coalition. He asked the bulk of the Cabinet rebels, including Trade Minister Steven Ciobo and Health Minister Greg Hunt, to remain in their posts, Bishop said.
“A number of people who voted for Peter Dutton have in fact offered their resignations to the prime minister, they’ve done the right thing, but the prime minister has said that he wants them to remain in the ministry,” Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
Bishop said the resignations of Dutton and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the former minister for international development and the Pacific, were accepted.
Dutton refused Turnbull’s request on Tuesday to remain in Cabinet, a move widely seen as a precursor to another challenge as he works to secure the seven Liberal Party votes he needs to become Australia’s sixth prime minister since 2009.
He had been coy on his immediate plans after his party-room defeat but declared on Wednesday he was working to secure the necessary support.
“I’m speaking to colleagues,” Dutton told 3AW Radio.
“If I believe the majority of colleagues support me then I will consider my position,” he said.
Further political instability is now all but guaranteed in the final two days of parliament’s sitting before it breaks until September, potentially upsetting Australia’s financial markets.
Australia’s stock market fell more than one percent on Tuesday, its biggest drop in five months.
Turnbull came to power in a party-room coup in September 2015 when he ousted former prime minister Tony Abbott, who also survived an internal leadership contest before his eventual defeat.
A social liberal and multi-millionaire former merchant banker, Turnbull rode an early wave of popular support but his standing has diminished significantly.
He has struggled to appeal to conservative voters, while progressive supporters have been disappointed as they watched government policies shift to the right as Turnbull tried to appease a powerful right-leaning backbench.
The uneasy unity held sufficiently to secure a narrow election victory in 2016.
However, that fragile peace was broken this week by the weakening of the government’s centrepiece energy policy, which had included the imposition of a target of a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions from Australia’s energy generators, an issue that has repeatedly divided the government.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Clive McKeef and Paul Tait)
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