Malcolm Turnbull: Australia's new PM brings charisma and a moderate face
Australia's wealthiest politician replaces unpopular Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the latest unseating by challengers from within party ranks.
Sydney — Malcolm Turnbull, a former journalist, lawyer, and merchant banker, is now Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years.
Following a swift and masterful leadership coup Monday, the new leader promised a more consultative government. He vowed to get the economy back on track and put an end to the instability and discord that have plagued Australian politics.
The election has been welcomed by the business community and Australia’s closest allies, including the United States and Britain.
Mr. Turnbull is one of Australia’s most popular and charismatic politicians, and also its wealthiest. He consistently out-polled former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose term in office was plagued by policy missteps, legislative deadlock, and a flagging economy.
"We need advocacy, not slogans. We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people," Turnbull said in his first press conference after ousting Mr. Abbott. "There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today, and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” he said.
But Turnbull, 60, a vocal supporter of marriage equality and of making Australia a republic, is viewed with suspicion by those on the right of the ruling Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the socially conservative Nationals, who distrust his stand on climate change.
While Abbott promised in a farewell statement there would be “no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping” of the man who ousted him, Turnbull faces some formidable challenges.
Involved in 'Spycatcher' case
“He is a left-leaning leader in a distinctly right-leaning party. It will be a stretch to reconcile his beliefs with the views of a majority of his followers,” says veteran political journalist Michelle Grattan, now a fellow at the University of Canberra.
Australia’s 29th prime minister was raised in Sydney by his father after his mother left the family home when he was nine. After graduating from Sydney University in 1978 with a law degree he studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship.
Turnbull briefly worked as a journalist before returning to Sydney, where he established his own law firm. He became famous for several high-profile cases, including the “Spycatcher” case, where he helped overturn an attempt by the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom to ban the publication of the memoirs of ex-MI5 agent Peter Wright.
In 1987 Turnbull started his own investment bank and then became managing director of the Australian branch of Goldman Sachs. He started becoming known as “tech savvy” when overseeing the expansion of Australia’s broadband network as head of the Communications Ministry, and he also made millions after founding the Internet startup OzEmail.
In politics, Turnbull’s record is mixed. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said of Turnbull in 2009 that he is, “Brilliant, fearless, but he has no judgment.” Soon after Turnbull botched an attempt to unseat then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over alleged cronyism.
Later, Turnbull’s support for an emissions-trading program saw him lose the Liberal leadership to Abbott by one vote.
His critics have attacked him for being impatient, overly ambitious and out of touch with lower- and middle-class voters. As Australia’s richest politician – with a net wealth estimated at $132 million – Turnbull was sometimes disparagingly referred to as the “Prince of Point Piper,” a reference to the posh suburb that lies in his Sydney electorate of Wentworth.
According to Stephen Mills, a lecturer in government at the University of Sydney, the 54-44 vote by the Liberal party MPs that put Turnbull in the top seat, while not decisive, represented a realization among Liberals that they needed a more moderate face to win the next election.
“If you venture too far to the left or too far to the right as Tony Abbott did, you will lose the center,” says Dr. Mills. “You will give ground to your political opponents, and you will upset your own supporters whose political careers you are putting at risk.”
Mills adds that he expects Turnbull to “quickly turn the polls around and restore the government to parity or surpass Labor and win the next election,” saying that process will keep Australian politics dynamic and competitive.
But the fractious nature of those politics, as seen by a series of prime ministers ousted from within their own ranks, looks set to continue, at least in the short-term.