New bid to oust Australian PM Gillard: Reports

SYDNEY (AFP) - Moves were underway on Wednesday to oust embattled Prime Minister Julia Gillard and return Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership, reports said, as the Australian premier faces defeat at the upcoming elections.

A petition was circulating among Labor lawmakers calling for a caucus meeting where a vote on the leadership would be held, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other media reported.

For Ms Gillard's leadership to be tested, the petition would need to be signed by at least a third of the 102 caucus members.

Parliament was due to rise on Thursday night for the last time before national elections on Sept 14 so any ballot would have to be held before the legislative body disbands.

It would bring to a head weeks of speculation about a new challenge by former leader Mr Rudd against Ms Gillard, who is staring at a crushing election defeat by the conservative opposition, according to opinion polls.

Ms Gillard ruthlessly ousted Mr Rudd in a 2010 party room coup but he remains popular and is seen by many as the best hope of Labor salvaging its future.

The prime minister has endured near-constant speculation about her leadership since taking power. She won only the narrowest of victories in the last election in 2010 which resulted in a hung parliament, forcing her to cobble together a minority government with the support of independents.

In March, Labor elder statesman Simon Crean made a failed attempt to reinstall Mr Rudd who refused to put his hand up.

In the aftermath, several ministers who backed Mr Rudd resigned from their positions while Mr Crean was sacked.

Mr Rudd himself launched an unsuccessful challenge to Ms Gillard in early 2012 but has since insisted the prime minister has his support.