Australia to get new leader as embattled prime minister forced out

Julie Bishop, who questioned whether Israeli West Bank settlements were illegal in 2014, among front-runners to take over from Malcolm Turnbull in secret ballot Friday

Australia's Malcolm Turnbull, center, and  Julie Bishop, right, leave after a press conference in Canberra on August 21, 2018.
Australia's Malcolm Turnbull, center, and Julie Bishop, right, leave after a press conference in Canberra on August 21, 2018. (AFP / SEAN DAVEY)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia is set to get its sixth change of prime minister in 11 years on Friday in a ballot of government lawmakers, continuing an era of extraordinary political instability.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is among the favorites and would be Australia’s second female prime minister.

Other favorites include Treasurer Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, a former cabinet minister.

Beleaguered Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull demanded the names of lawmakers in the conservative Liberal Party who wanted him to go before he would allow them to choose a new prime minister at a meeting at Parliament House on Friday. The names would prove a majority of his government had abandoned him.

Turnbull tweeted half an hour before the meeting was due to start on Friday that Dutton had been provided him with the 43 signatures. Turnbull said the meeting would proceed once the signatures had been verified.

Turnbull would then become the fourth prime minister to be dumped by his or her own party before serving a full three-year term since the revolving door to the prime minister’s office started in 2010.

“Australians will be rightly appalled by what they’re witnessing,” Turnbull said on Thursday in announcing the meeting that would end his career.

‘Israeli settlements may not be illegal’

Bishop has taken a decidedly friendly line toward Israel since taking over as foreign minister in 2013, including increasingly voting against resolutions critical of the Jewish state in the United Nations.

She told The Times of Israel in 2014 that Israeli settlements in the West Bank may not be illegal under the fourth Geneva Convention, breaking with the vast majority of the international community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 4, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution. And by deeming the activity as a war crime, it’s unlikely to engender a negotiated solution,” she said at the time.

In July, she ended direct payments to the Palestinian Authority over fears its donations will be used to pay Palestinians convicted of terrorism and their families.

Dutton is described by supporters as a pragmatic legislator who gets things done and by detractors as a racist who demonizes refugees.

He sparked a diplomatic row with Pretoria in March after he said that Canberra should give “special attention” to white South African farmers seeking asylum because they faced a “horrific” situation.

‘No functioning government’

The trend of parties dumping prime ministers is universally hated by Australians.

Public anger became apparent overnight with windows broken at the Brisbane office of Dutton, Turnbull’s main rival in his government.

Dutton has told the prime minister that a majority of Liberal Party lawmakers — at least 43 — don’t support his leadership. But Dutton’s supporters on Thursday could not find 43 lawmakers prepared to sign their names to a petition demanding a leadership ballot.

An explanation could be that some lawmakers fear they will be punished by voters if they put their names to dumping Turnbull. The ballot to choose a prime minister is secret, so lawmakers don’t have to declare which candidate they voted for. Many later lie that they backed the winner.

This file photo taken on August 20, 2018 shows Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull answering a question from the opposition in Parliament as Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, right, looks on in Canberra. (AFP/SEAN DAVEY)

Support for ousting Turnbull might also have waned because he warned Thursday he would quit politics rather than ask his party again for its support in a ballot. His resignation from Parliament would force a by-election that could cost the government its single-seat majority. The resignation could also push his successor into immediately calling general elections.

The party’s federal executive had intervened, telling a defiant Turnbull but that the state branches unanimously wanted the leadership crisis resolved on Friday.

Australia’s Treasurer Scott Morrison attends a press conference in Parliament House in Canberra on August 22, 2018. (AFP/MARK GRAHAM)

Some lawmakers who were against the change of prime minister said they had agreed to sign the petition in a bid to end the impasse.

“I am being pressured — beyond any comprehension — I am being pressured to put my name on that list so it can bring the party room to a meeting,” staunch Turnbull supporter Scott Buchholz said on Friday.

Turnbull had defeated Dutton 48-35 in a surprise vote on Tuesday. Turnbull initiated the ballot in the hope of ending speculation that his government had lost faith in him in the face of poor opinion polling. Several ministers have since resigned and told him that most of the government wanted a new leader.

Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten told Parliament on Thursday it was evidence that “Australia no longer has a functioning government.”

“The Liberal Party, whatever it does today and tomorrow, is irreparably split,” Shorten said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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