Australia’s Political Gambler and His Uncertain Future
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s more political turbulence ahead Down Under.
Wearing a mustache and a smirk, the audience member stands for his turn to question the prime minister in a high-stakes live television appearance, shortly before Australia’s voters are set to decide whether or not to keep Malcolm Turnbull in charge. “A bit over six months ago, the Liberal Party made you the prime minister on the promise that you weren’t Tony Abbott,” the man says, referencing Turnbull’s controversial predecessor. Battling a severe cold that partially hobbles his voice, Turnbull cuts in: “I think that was a penetrating glimpse of the obvious.” The crowd chuckles along with him.
“But the real problem,” the man continues, undeterred, “is that in two weeks you hope to continue in the same position on the argument that you’re not Malcolm Turnbull either. Are you?” Turnbull, with a tight smile, momentarily loses the wit that brought him to his country’s most powerful post. He had gambled on a rare retention vote for the entire Parliament to strengthen his political hand, but found himself ditching long-held beliefs and dispensing platitudes in a coin-flip election.
Turnbull’s coalition barely won that July “double dissolution” vote, in which the entire House of Representatives and Senate stood for re-election, after eight days of uncertainty over the count, but he emerged a diminished figure with a questionable future. His John Boehner–like chore is to appease the restive conservatives who could yank his position, but without alienating centrist voting majorities needed to get things done. In order to pass anything in the Senate, he needs votes from members of the opposition, minor parties or independents. Turnbull, who didn’t reply to OZY’s request for comment, will dictate how the world’s 12th-largest economy (according to the World Bank) approaches climate change and same-sex marriage; whether it can repair a large budget deficit; and whether its recent political churn will continue. It’s the fight of his life.
Turnbull, 61, was raised by a single father; his mother, a distant cousin of the actor Angela Lansbury, left when Malcolm was 9. He attended a top boarding school in Sydney — with the help of a scholarship (as his official website biography is careful to point out). Journalist and Turnbull biographer Paddy Manning tells OZY that young Malcolm was an asthmatic loner who hated boarding school. Still, he excelled academically, graduated from the University of Sydney and became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, later earning a law degree. He moved along in journalism and the legal world — where he made a national name defending a former MI5 agent against the British government in the “Spycatcher” affair — and banking, which eventually led him to politics.
His closest professional ties were in the Labour Party, Manning says, but Turnbull donned the more moderate Liberal Party hat for his first run for office, capturing a seat in Parliament in 2004. Many of his colleagues regarded him skeptically because of that, but Turnbull’s keen intellect and glibness had him immediately pegged as a possible PM. His cocksure, risk-taking attitude would both help and hurt him.
The prime ministership has changed hands five times in eight years, starting with John Howard’s electoral loss in 2007 after more than a decade in office. Turnbull rose quickly in the Liberal Party ranks, but he went against party orthodoxy on climate change. His support for an emissions trading scheme that put a price on carbon was one reason he was dumped from the opposition leader post in favor of Abbott by a single vote in a 2009 internal tally. But Turnbull stayed in the game, and when Abbott’s polarizing tenure as prime minister led to plunging polls, Turnbull knifed him back in a 2015 internal vote. Turnbull presented a far sunnier vision for the nation and enjoyed an initial surge of popularity, but intrigue remains about his policy concessions behind closed doors.
To secure the votes to take over the job, Turnbull appeared to agree to unusual conditions in what foes are calling a “secret” coalition agreement with the National Party. ”When he took leadership, [the National Party] forced him to sign an agreement saying he wouldn’t change any of Tony Abbott’s policies on climate change,” Manning says, referring to Abbott’s repeal of Australia’s cap-and-trade program. “That was the first time, as far as we know, that a coalition agreement actually set down specific areas of policy.… [Now there’s] debate about: Shouldn’t that document be released? Our prime minister is constrained by some hidden side deal.” Turnbull has also been accused of selling out on same-sex marriage, which he says he personally supports, although he’s allowing a popular referendum, against the objections of gay-rights groups.
Turnbull, who reportedly spent $1 million of his own money to help prop up other Liberal candidates this year, is still viewed as suspect by many in his own coalition — though beyond the lightning rod Abbott, there’s no obvious replacement. “It’s a bit of a snake pit in there,” says Rodney Tiffen, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Sydney. “So although you would say the rational expectation is that Turnbull would lead [until the next election], you wouldn’t bet your house on it.”
Before becoming prime minister, Turnbull had appeared on Q&A in a leather jacket, playing the part of the rebel. But as he faced the question that cut to the heart of his candidacy in Brisbane in June, he was suited up and on the defensive. “I’ve been a public figure one way or another for many years, for decades,” Turnbull replied in measured tones. “I think every Australian knows who I am and knows what I stand for.”
What they don’t know is how long he’ll be able to stand.