CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on his government to unite behind him after he survived an internal leadership challenge Tuesday, defeating a senior minister in a ballot that is unlikely to settle questions about whether he’s the right person to lead the party into elections due next year.
His challenger, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, resigned from Cabinet after the vote but the amount of support he gained surprised many commentators. Turnbull ruled out any retribution against ministers suspected of supporting Dutton and said he had invited Dutton to remain in the senior security portfolio.
“I don’t bare any grudge against Peter Dutton for having stood up and challenged me today,” Turnbull said at a news conference with his deputy party leader Julie Bishop, who retained her position unopposed in Tuesday’s ballot.
“We know that disunity undermines the ability of any government to get its job done and unity is absolutely critical,” Turnbull added
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Turnbull called the vote at a meeting of conservative Liberal Party lawmakers as speculation mounted about his support within the government, which is gearing up for a general election due early next year. The government has trailed the opposition Labor Party in most opinion polls since the last election in 2016.
Turnbull won 48 votes to 35. One lawmaker abstained and another was away on sick leave.
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. Ousting Turnbull would have been the sixth leadership change since then.
Turnbull would next month become Australia’s longest serving prime minister since Howard, having held the office for three years and four days.
Dutton supporters say the former police drug squad detective could have amassed enough support to successfully challenge for the leadership if the vote had been held Thursday before Parliament takes a two-week break and lawmakers won’t gather again until Sept. 10.
Dutton later thanked his colleagues for their “considerable support” in the ballot.
“I believe that I was the best person to lead the Liberal Party to success at the next election,” Dutton told reporters.
Dutton said he respected the outcome of the ballot and fully supported Turnbull. He didn’t specifically rule out challenging the prime minister again. Treasurer Scott Morrison will act as home affairs minister.
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.
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, advised Turnbull in a statement on Tuesday that “unity has to be created and loyalty has to be earned. They can’t just be demanded.”
Damian Drum, a lawmaker in The Nationals’ party, a junior coalition partner, called on Abbott to resign from Parliament instead of destabilizing the government.