Australia's Prime Minister agrees to hold party leadership vote

CANBERRA (AFP, REUTERS) - Australia's ruling Labor Party will hold a special meeting to vote on its leadership later on Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Parliament. She said the meeting would vote on the positions of prime minister and deputy prime minister.

The ballot is meant to end destabilisation from lawmakers who want former prime minister Kevin Rudd to return as their leader to arrest a slump in opinion polls, which have the conservative opposition consistently ahead of the centre-left government. A general election had previously been called for Sept 14.

The Australian government plunged into a crisis on Thursday after a senior Cabinet minister openly called for Ms Gillard to hold a leadership ballot.

Ms Gillard lags badly in opinion polls just six months out from national elections, and rampant leadership speculation has destabilised the Labor party further, with former leader Rudd waiting in the wings.

Senior frontbencher Simon Crean, a former Labor leader and party elder, said the "stalemate has to end" to prevent the party from imploding and sided with Mr Rudd.

Mr Crean, who warned the leadership speculation was "killing" the party, said he would back Mr Rudd and stand for the deputy leader role, currently held by Mr Wayne Swan.

Mr Crean met with Ms Gillard on Wednesday evening and again on Thursday to inform of his decision, and said her reaction was to say that she would not be calling for a vote.

Mr Rudd, who was brutally ousted by Ms Gillard in mid 2010, pledged not to make another attempt on the leadership following a 2012 challenge he lost 71-31. But with his supporters campaigning behind the scenes, Mr Crean said he must declare his intentions.

"He has got no option but to run," Mr Crean said. "I don't want any more games, I'm sick to death of it, it's about time he stood up and instead of having his camp leak things, actually have the courage of his conviction and his belief. The internals have to stop. We have to get on with the message and it has to become an inclusive party."

Ms Gillard has been dogged by the speculation for weeks, with rumours fuelled by a government decision to try and introduce media reforms the industry has united to fiercely oppose.

Some ministers have stressed their loyalty to her, but reports have said any leadership vote between the two would be tight.

Ms Gillard became Prime Minister in mid-2010 when she ousted Mr Rudd, who at the time had lost the support of powerful factional leaders. She called an election which she failed to win outright from the surprised public, gaining power only after cobbling together a coalition with a Greens MP and several rural independents to form a majority in the Lower House.