SYDNEY // Australian prime minister Tony Abbott on Monday vowed to fend off his second leadership challenge this year after a high-profile minister threw down the gauntlet and said the government would lose the next election without change at the top.
Malcolm Turnbull, a popular communications minister long considered one of the most credible alternatives to Mr Abbott, quit the cabinet and triggered a party ballot which will be held later on Monday.
“I will be a candidate and I expect to win,” Mr Abbott said as lawmakers from his Liberal Party prepared to cast their votes, adding that the prime ministership was “not a prize or a plaything to be demanded”.
“It should be something which is earned by a vote of the Australian people,” he said.
Mr Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop – until now a loyal ally – visited Mr Abbott earlier in the day to tell him he needed to step aside, Sky News reported.
The challenger, a millionaire former barrister from an upmarket Sydney electorate, said that the government’s message was not getting through and that a new, more open, approach was needed.
“This course of action has been urged on me by many people over a long period of time,” Mr Turnbull said. “We need a different style of leadership.”
In the current parliament, whoever leads the Liberal Party becomes prime minister as head of a conservative coalition.
Mr Abbott, an unpopular premier who won power in 2013 elections, survived a leadership challenge in February after poor polling, policy backflips and an unpopular budget generated a backbench revolt, fuelled by questions about the prime minister's judgement.
No challenger emerged then, after a vote on whether there should be a leadership contest was defeated 61 to 39.
But in the months since, Mr Abbott has failed to turn around the polls, buoy the economy or stop damaging leaks from within his party.
The next national election – which must be held by mid-January 2017 – is expected to be called some time next year. Mr Turnbull said failure to change would mean losing power to Labor leader Bill Shorten.
“If we continue with Mr Abbott as prime minister, it is clear enough what will happen. He will cease to be prime minister and he’ll be succeeded by Mr Shorten,” Mr Turnbull said.
Australian politics can be volatile, with party leaderships switching rapidly after often vicious and sudden coups.
Mr Turnbull previously led the Liberal Party in opposition before being ousted by Mr Abbott in late 2009.
Mr Abbott then lost the 2010 election to Labor’s Julia Gillard, but led his party to a resounding victory in 2013.
Mr Turnbull said on Monday he had taken soundings from many people over a long period of time, and had not taken the decision to challenge lightly.
He said Australia needed a style of leadership “that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take”.
“We need advocacy, not slogans,” he said.
The Labor Party has enjoyed a solid lead over the government since last year, with a Newspoll survey last week finding 63 per cent of voters dissatisfied with Mr Abbott’s performance.
* Agence France-Presse