Ahead of Australia polls, PM's star falls with stunning speed

Once seen as a visionary, Malcolm Turnbull has squandered a 10-point lead going into the July 2 parliamentary election. Early voting began Tuesday. 

Lukas Coch/Reuters
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a news conference on the Great Barrier Reef in Townsville, Australia, Monday.

Not long ago, Malcolm Turnbull appeared to be cruising to victory in next month’s Australian parliamentary elections, riding a reputation for decisive leadership, bold new right-wing economic policy ideas and a progressive social outlook.

The Liberal Party leader’s unusual combination seemed to promise an end to a decade of dysfunctional politics and revolving door governments that have left Australian voters cold. Fewer than half of them believe it makes any difference which party is in government, according to one poll.

But in recent weeks, Mr. Turnbull’s star has fallen from the firmament. Unfulfilled pledges, policy flip-flops, and internal party bickering have undermined the image of a suave and visionary leader that twice put him on the cover of the men’s magazine GQ.

The result? Turnbull’s center-right coalition with the National Party has squandered a 10-point lead in opinion polls for the July 2 election. The governing alliance is now running neck and neck with center-left Labor party challenger Bill Shorten, a former trade union leader.

That revives the prospect of yet another short-lived government: Turnbull has been in office only since he ousted his predecessor in a party leadership rebellion last September. Australia has seen six prime ministers in less than a decade, a pattern that has stifled coherent policy creation and fomented public disdain for politics.

“That whole cycle is kind of annoying because they don’t have enough time to actually get anything done,” says Lucy McGovan, a 20-year-old retail worker in Melbourne who has yet to decide on her vote. “They can’t implement a 20-year plan if they are going to get kicked out in two.” 

Turnbull seemed to offer something new.

With a reputation for success built in journalism, law, investment banking, and information technology, the multimillionaire venture capitalist-turned-politician was rated by one early opinion poll as the most competent leader Australia had seen in two decades.

That was appealing in a country that many say needs fresh thinking. A quarter-century of economic growth, fueled by a mining boom that fed China’s demand for resources, is over. The question being put to voters is who is most capable of leading the country into a new era of prosperity and development. 

Turnbull’s center-right coalition has portrayed itself as the responsible economic manager, pitching corporate tax cuts, budget savings and investment in innovation. At the same time, Turnbull’s appeal when he challenged his predecessor, Tony Abbott, for the leadership of the Liberal party, lay also in his liberal social outlook. 

“He was attractive because he was seen to be a very centrist figure, almost progressive on a number of social issues,” says John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at Australian National University in Canberra. “That attracted some people, but I think those people now feel that that was a false hope, that Shorten is right when he says Turnbull is not leading the Liberal Party – the Liberal Party is leading him.” 

His party chose Turnbull as leader amid panic that Mr. Abbott’s personal unpopularity would cost it the next election. Abbott had alienated some voters with staunchly conservative positions on climate change, same-sex marriage, and Australia’s links to the British monarchy.

Turnbull, on the other hand, argued for a carbon pricing policy to discourage the use of coal, advocated a free parliamentary vote on gay marriage, and supported making Australia a republic, severing its ties with the British Commonwealth.

Since taking office, however, Turnbull has been constrained by conservatives who remain loyal to his predecessor. Bowing to the right-wing rump of the party, the prime minister has maintained many of Abbott’s most controversial policies: He has opted to hold a plebiscite on gay marriage – rather than a parliamentary vote that would risk party civil war – and turned against carbon pricing.

“Malcolm Turnbull is being squeezed on both fronts, I think – left and right,” says Terry Barnes, a former adviser to Abbott. This tension has left the prime minister struggling to set a clear course for his government, he says.

“I think he has been weighed down by caution," he says. "He has certainly been weighed down by the office.”

Despite pledging bold leadership, Turnbull has repeatedly retreated or failed to follow through on policy initiatives. 

His most radical plan – to make state governments responsible for funding many social services through local taxes – went nowhere. Turnbull dropped it almost immediately when state leaders voiced opposition. One independent senator scoffed that the prime minister appeared to be taking policy advice from Marty McFly, the character from the “Back to The Future” films.

Meanwhile, Mr. Turnbull has had difficulty explaining to the electorate just what he means by his vision of an innovation-led “ideas boom” and how he would invest the $1.1 billion dollars he says he wants to spend on it.

“What does that mean? What’s innovation?” asks Ms. McGovan, a first-time voter in a federal election. “It’s not that specific.”

Of the election campaign so far, Barnes says, “it’s been meandering, it’s been disjointed,” and neither of the leading candidates has proved very inspiring. A record 15 percent of voters have indicated they will vote for a minor party or an independent candidate this time round. 

“All that latent skepticism and even cynicism about Australian politics…. has resurfaced,” says Prof. Warhurst. And an election campaign that had once seemed to offer the promise of sea change has fallen back into a familiar rut.

 The stakes no longer seem so high. As the current edition of the satirical Chaser Quarterly asks on its front cover, “Who will lead the nation for the next year-and-a-bit?”

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