By Jane Wardell
The new Australian prime minister is a self-made multi-millionaire who has strong links with the business community, progressive views for his conservative party and a level of public popularity of which the man he toppled could only dream.
Malcolm Turnbull, the former communications minister, was sworn in on Tuesday as Australia’s fourth leader in two years, replacing Tony Abbott.
Turnbull, 60, a former tech entrepreneur, merchant banker and lawyer, had long been viewed by the public as a preferred prime minister.
On the surface, Turnbull has much in common with Abbott. Both are middle-aged white men who attended prestigious Sydney schools before becoming Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University. Both worked as political journalists for a time.
A closer look shows marked differences, not the least of which are their positions on the political spectrum.
Abbott shocked many Australians by making one of his first acts as prime minister the reintroduction of knighthoods and damehoods, bestowing the honour on British Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip, a move seen by many as outdated.
Turnbull, meanwhile, was the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement for several years.
He already had a track record for embarrassing the British establishment. As a young lawyer in 1986 he ran rings around witnesses in a high-profile trial in which former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government had sought to ban the publication in Australia of ‘Spycatcher’, the memoirs of former MI5 officer Peter Wright. The court ruled for publication.
An erudite favourite on political chat shows, Turnbull had increasingly stuck his head above the parapet in recent months, voicing his opposition to Abbott’s conservative stance on gay marriage and a carbon tax.
However, he risks disappointing supporters of his more progressive views as he attempts to appease the right wing of his Liberal Party, which forms the conservative coalition government alongside the smaller National Party.
Turnbull stuck to Abbott’s script in his first speech to parliament as prime minister on Tuesday and said Australians would vote on same-sex marriage after elections due next year.
A former leader of the Liberal Party who was ousted by Abbott in opposition in 2009, Turnbull also has the handicap of wealth and perceived privilege.
Abbott is a former boxer who set social media alight earlier this year when he chomped into a raw onion on a farm visit. Turnbull, in contrast, is admired by the urban elite.
The opposition Labor Party was quick to paint the one-time partner at Goldman Sachs as a “slick merchant banker” who is out of touch with the general public.
Turnbull’s riches were boosted by his involvement in internet service provider Ozemail, the first Australian tech company to list on the Nasdaq. He bought a stake in the company in 1994 for A$500,000 ($356,450.00), selling it five years later for A$57 million ($40.6 million).
Labor lawmaker Jason Clare labelled him “a multi-millionaire who lives in a pink mansion on Sydney Harbour”. The tabloid Northern Territory News trumpeted “Rich dude becomes PM” on its front page.
Turnbull is expected to focus on his strong business credentials to turn the spotlight away from controversial issues like Abbott’s tough refugee policies and back onto the faltering economy – and how to give it a jumpstart.
“That’s where the government has been really floundering,” said Peter Chen, a senior lecturer in government at the University of Sydney. “He’s talking a big game, whether he can pull it off is questionable.”