Australia has a new prime minister, again
Malcolm Turnbull has long been Tony Abbott’s nemesis. My first contact with both was as a teenager campaigning for Australia to become a republic at the 1999 referendum. Turnbull was leading the Australian Republican Movement, but it was Abbott, born in London and an outspoken Anglophile, who prevailed in the referendum as leader of the monarchists. But his enduring attachment to Great Britain has played an important part in his recent downfall.
Six months after coming to power, in March last year, Abbott was already behind in polls when he surprised his colleagues with a widely mocked decision to restore knighthoods to Australia’s honours system, more than 20 years after they were abolished.
In January this year he stunned even his staunchest supporters by awarding a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh. Many thought the announcement was a joke, and the bitter fallout triggered a leadership ballot. He held on by a caucus vote of 61-39, and asked his colleagues to give him six months to regain their confidence.
Last month spontaneous applause erupted when a pilot informed passengers landing in Canberra that Turnbull had replaced Abbott as prime minister. He had become increasingly unpopular with both voters and his colleagues, and with a by-election looming he had run out of time to placate his caucus who voted 54-44 to remove him.
Many observers did not consider the moderate centrist Turnbull an obvious choice to lead the Liberal party. He had previously led the party, in opposition, from September 2008 to December 2009, when Abbott challenged him, winning by a single caucus vote. The governing Liberal-National caucus is considered largely conservative and rightwing, a reflection of Abbott’s hard-nosed, hairy-chested, combative political style.
Turnbull’s politics are closer to David Cameron than Margaret Thatcher. He is known derisively as the ‘Prince of Point Piper’, an exclusive suburb on Sydney’s harbour occupied exclusively by the country’s multimillionaires and their mansions. A Rhodes scholar of relatively humble origins, he dabbled in law and journalism before establishing his own investment bank, which he later sold to Goldman Sachs. His current net worth is estimated to be in excess of $200m, but he frequently tweets photographs of himself on public transport, a Renaissance man cultivating a reputation as an everyman.
His political views, and certainly those of much of his wealthy inner-city Sydney constituents, are economically conservative but socially progressive. He has previously been an outspoken supporter of marriage equality and advocated for a national emissions trading scheme to combat climate change, putting him at odds with both Abbott and his party. But since becoming prime minister he has repudiated these views, reiterating his support for the direction Abbott has taken the party in over the past five years.
It will be a challenge for Turnbull to bring his party’s policies to the centre, where he is presumably most comfortable selling them. But with many of the government members of parliament in increasingly marginal seats as a result of Abbott’s unpopular policies, they may have little choice.
Sam Dastyari is a federal senator for New South Wales and a member of the Australian Republican Movement
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.