Ex-Banker Turnbull Touted as Next Aussie PM as Abbott Slumps

  • Malcolm Turnbull three times more popular than Abbott in polls
  • Millionaire Cabinet minister loathed by sections of his party

Self-made millionaire, former investment banker and high-profile lawyer. If opinion polls are right, Malcolm Turnbull is also Australia’s prime minister in waiting.

The urbane Cabinet minister may offer the government its best chance of winning a second term in office in elections due next year -- a prospect that looks doubtful under his boss, Tony Abbott.

Faced with slowing growth and a stalled agenda, Abbott, 57, is struggling to resurrect the conservative government’s popularity, just seven months after surviving a leadership challenge within his own Liberal Party. Switching to Turnbull, 60, may steer the party back to the center and replenish its political capital -- in turn allowing the government to embark on much-needed economic reforms, according to analyst Stephen Stockwell.

Economic Agenda

“The attraction of Turnbull is he may be able to get momentum for the government’s conservative economic agenda while presenting a more moderate, presentable face socially,” said Stockwell of Brisbane’s Griffith University. “He’s much more understandable to mainstream Australia than Abbott.”

While polls show Turnbull is about three times more popular than Abbott with voters, any leadership ambitions could be blocked by conservative colleagues put off by his support for same-sex marriage and fears he will bring back carbon pricing. His support for emissions trading saw him dumped as Liberal leader six years ago while the party was in opposition.

“Turnbull has an extraordinary presence, is extremely bright and can be very charming,” said Greg Barns, a lawyer and author who worked with him on the Australian Republican Movement’s 1999 failed campaign to cut ties with the British monarchy. “He’s got broad appeal in the community who think he’d make a good prime minister. But that may not come to pass because the hard-right of his Liberal Party, which has some very conservative social beliefs, loathes him.”

Gay Marriage

Since the Liberal-National coalition’s September 2013 election win, Turnbull hasn’t openly challenged Abbott. Yet he has declared his opposition to some of his leader’s social policies. His support of same-sex marriage-- also backed by the majority of Australians -- stands in contrast to Abbott.

Asked whether Turnbull, who is communications minister, fully supported Abbott, his office pointed to a Sept. 7 press conference when he told reporters: “The country’s in the very best of hands.”

A key test for Abbott comes on Sept. 19, when the Liberal Party will seek to retain the parliamentary seat of Canning in Western Australia in a special ballot triggered by the death of one of its lawmakers. A poor result could heighten talk the government is heading to defeat in the next election and spark a fresh challenge to Abbott’s leadership, according to Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide.

‘Waiting Game’

“There’s no doubt a bad showing would put pressure on Abbott,” Manning said. “Voters are puzzled why Turnbull isn’t already prime minister, but the fact that there’s a lot of animosity within his own party to him means he has to play a waiting game until he becomes its only obvious choice.”

When asked in a Fairfax-Ipsos poll conducted last month their preferred Liberal prime minister, 41 percent of voters chose Turnbull, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on 23 percent and Abbott on 15 percent. Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, seen in local media as a potential contender, was on 5 percent.

A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper Sept. 7 put support for the government at 46 percent against the opposition Labor’s 54 percent. The survey showed 41 percent of voters prefer Labor leader Bill Shorten as prime minister, against Abbott on 37 percent.

Raised in Sydney, Turnbull worked as a political journalist while still an undergraduate before winning a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and gaining a law degree. After co-founding a law firm in the 1980s, he successfully blocked an attempt by the British government to ban the book Spycatcher by former MI5 agent Peter Wright.

Investment Banker

Turnbull co-founded an investment banking firm before helming Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s operations in Australia. He led an unsuccessful push for the nation to become a republic in 1999 -- a cause he still supports and one that Abbott has rejected as party policy.

After winning a parliamentary seat in 2004, he became Liberal leader in September 2008 while the party was in opposition. Less than 15 months later, Abbott defeated him by one vote in a ballot of Liberal lawmakers -- a challenge spurred by Turnbull backing a Labor government proposal for a price on carbon emissions. Abbott scrapped Labor’s carbon pricing mechanism after winning office.

Fierce Intellect

Turnbull’s economic and social liberalism, combined with a fierce intellect and “ferocious” work ethic, makes him the prime minister Australia now needs, according to Barns.

“When I was working with him, by the time I’d get to the office at 7 a.m., you’d realize he’s already had a two-hour start on you and would already be thoroughly on top of his working day,” said Barns. “He just seems ahead of Abbott, who’s struggled as prime minister because he’s over-reached on many issues and seems out of touch.”

While Abbott was a successful opposition leader and helped tear down two Labor leaders with his attacks on government policy, that combative style hasn’t helped him as prime minister.

Unflagged spending cuts to health and education in his first budget in May 2014 angered voters, while his decision to bestow a knighthood on Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip in January was ridiculed and exacerbated a perception that he’s out of touch with public opinion.

Trade Deals

Abbott had early successes -- scrapping Labor’s mining tax and carbon pricing mechanism, stopping a flood of refugees, and reaching free trade deals with China, South Korea and Japan. Yet business leaders are now critical of the government’s lack of resolve to overhaul an outdated tax system and labor market -- reforms seen as essential to an economy experiencing its weakest run of growth since the 1991 recession.

When asked to comment on the coalition’s record and whether it could win the next election, Abbott’s office flagged a Sept. 7 press conference when he said he was confident the public would back a government that had “delivered on its commitments.”

“The plan is working and we are sticking to it,” Abbott said.

Despite the government’s challenges, many Liberals don’t see Turnbull as a potential savior. His political judgment was thrown into doubt as Liberal leader, when he inaccurately accused then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of lying to parliament. In the last poll before he was removed as opposition leader, 50 percent of voters surveyed said they were dissatisfied with his performance. Abbott’s dissatisfaction rating stood at 63 percent in the latest Newspoll.

Labor’s Chaos

John Hewson, an economist and former leader of the party, said the government’s problems go beyond Abbott and changing prime ministers could be even more destabilizing. The chaos of Labor’s six years in power, when Rudd was ousted by his deputy Julia Gillard in a 2010 party coup, only to reclaim the prime ministership weeks before the 2013 election, is still fresh in voters’ minds, he said.

“Changing the jockey doesn’t win you the race when the horse is sick,” Hewson said. “It would be another example of the short-term political games Australians are sick of while the long-term reforms we badly need are ignored.”

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