File photo of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull Photograph:( Reuters )
Defiant Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull vowed not to "give in to bullies" on Thursday in the face of a new leadership challenge, but said he will quit politics if his party no longer supports him.
Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, an ex-police officer and right-wing conservative, said he was confident he now had the numbers to unseat Turnbull, considered a moderate.
And with senior ministers defecting, Turnbull's near three-year grip on power is tenuous despite surviving a snap ballot on his leadership on Tuesday, winning the vote 48-35.
He said Dutton had yet to prove he has majority backing from the Liberal Party -- a requirement for him to force another meeting to have a second crack at the top job ahead of national elections due by the middle of next year.
If the petition arrives showing this, the meeting will be held at midday on Friday and Turnbull will not stand as a candidate and leave parliament.
Turnbull accused Dutton and his supporters of intimidation with the crisis snowballing quickly since it began unfolding on Monday after months of poor opinion polls and a revolt by fellow Liberal politicians over plans to embed carbon emissions targets in law.
"What began as a minority has by a process of intimidation persuaded people that the only way to stop the insurgency is to give in to it," he said.
"I do not believe in that. I have never done that. I have never given in to bullies, but you can imagine the pressure it's put people under."
He added that what Australia was witnessing was "a very deliberate effort to pull the Liberal Party further to the right".
Dutton earlier told reporters he had advised Turnbull by phone that "it was my judgement that the majority of the party room no longer supported his leadership".
"As such, I asked him to convene a meeting of the Liberal Party at which I would challenge for the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party," he added.
In a major blow, Turnbull's influential Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, along with the employment and education ministers, then said he no longer had their backing.
They joined at least 10 other ministers who have either resigned or offered to.
"It is in the best interests of the Liberal Party to help manage an orderly transition to a new leader," said Cormann, who used to be a trusted ally.
In a twist to the plot, ABC and Sky News reported that Treasurer Scott Morrison, Turnbull's right-hand man, may also stand if there was a ballot in a bid to derail Dutton's power grab.
Complicating matters, it has emerged that Dutton has financial interests in childcare centres that get government subsidies -- possibly breaching constitutional rules -- and Turnbull suggested he may not be eligible to sit in parliament, let alone be prime minister.
"This issue of eligibility is critically important," he said, with the solicitor-general looking into it.
Dutton, described by supporters as a pragmatic legislator who gets things done and by detractors as a racist who demonises refugees, has said he has legal advice that he is in the clear.
He quit his cabinet position after his first failed leadership bid on Tuesday and has said that if he became prime minister, he would focus on cutting immigration to ease population pressures and boosting water investment to help drought-stricken farmers.
Dutton and his camp, including former prime minister Tony Abbott who once described climate change as "absolute crap", have also made clear keeping power prices down was more important than meeting Canberra's commitment to slash carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2030.
The unrest is the latest chapter in a turbulent decade for Australian politics, with no leader managing to serve out a full term since John Howard lost the 2007 election.
And it has played into the hands of the Labor opposition, which has been making the most of it.
"Another day and another one of chaos from this government -- a government that has effectively stopped governing because it's too busy fighting itself," said deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek.