Aussie PM Learns the Hard Way That Politics Is a Very Different Game

Updated on
  • Australia’s Turnbull seeking election win in July 2 poll
  • Has struggled to translate from business to political success

Juggling two jobs while studying law in the early 1970s, Malcolm Turnbull was so squeezed for time he paid a friend at the University of Sydney for copies of his lecture notes.

“My notes were obviously both legible and of good quality because Malcolm got a Rhodes Scholarship -- he did better from my notes than I did,” jokes John O’Sullivan, now chairman of Credit Suisse Group AG’s investment banking division in Australia.

In subsequent decades Turnbull barely slowed down, with a career spanning journalism, law, banking and now running the country. O’Sullivan has watched first hand his ascent and describes him as “easily the most recognized person in Sydney, long before he became prime minister.”

Malcolm Turnbull campaigns in Devonport on June 24.

Photographer: Stefan Postles/Getty Images

Turnbull, 61, had in theory the perfect pedigree for the rough and tumble of politics. Along the way he faced down critics who said he was a fickle careerist who didn’t share the socially-conservative views of his Liberal Party.

Yet as he seeks an election win for his Liberal-National coalition on July 2 he’s barely in front in opinion polls, having squandered a six-point lead held as recently as February, five months after he removed unpopular predecessor Tony Abbott with the help of other lawmakers.

“Turnbull won’t have an easy time ahead; he’s really facing his greatest challenge,” said Norman Abjorensen, a political analyst at the Australian National University. “He’s got to turn around the economy in the face of global turmoil, while needing to be seen to make progress on social issues in the face of hostile elements of his own party. He’ll need to harness all his enormous self confidence and discipline to make it work.”

The business world is impatient for the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. investment banker -- with a net worth estimated by the Australian Financial Review last year around A$200 million ($148 million) -- to deliver. The world’s 12th-largest economy is stagnating, and hopes were high when Turnbull took over that he’d help the country transition from a decade-long mining boom while chipping away at a deficit forecast to reach A$37.1 billion next year.

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But despite his business acumen Turnbull has struggled to put his stamp on the job. His stint as opposition leader in 2008-2009 lasted just 14 months: He was dumped amid concern within the party over his autocratic leadership style and for his more liberal stance on social issues. Without a solid win on Saturday, leadership whispers may begin anew.

“Politics is a different game from business, and he’s learnt that the hard way,” said Greg Barns, a lawyer and author who worked with him on the Australian Republican Movement’s failed campaign in 1999 to cut ties with the British monarchy. “Instead of ordering people around, in government you need to build bridges with them and then push them along. He certainly appears to be more cautious than earlier in his political career.”

In the final days of the campaign, Turnbull is pushing a message of stability. Australia has churned through six leaders in eight years, and global markets were upended by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

The latest Newspoll puts the coalition ahead of the Bill Shorten-led Labor, 51 percent to 49 percent. Turnbull has 90 of the 150 lower house seats. But he could see his majority whittled down, raising the prospect of even greater gridlock in parliament.

Earlier this month, John Hewson, leader of the Liberals in the early 1990s, was walking in Wentworth in eastern Sydney -- Turnbull’s stomping ground since he was a child and the seat held by him since 2004 -- when a campaigner gave him a button with the message: “I Miss Malcolm.”

“That’s the mood that’s around,” said Hewson. “He raised expectations to a spectacular level on becoming prime minister. But after the policy agenda didn’t surface people are wondering who he really is and what he stands for.”

In contrast to sections of his party, Turnbull supports same-sex marriage, is a Republican and previously favored a carbon pricing mechanism to curb pollution, yet has shied away from immediately legislating in those areas.

Turnbull, candidate for the Sydney seat of Wentworth, poses for a photo in October 2004.

Photographer: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Growing up in Sydney’s beach front eastern suburbs, Turnbull had an early set back when his mother left the family; he was sent to a “bleak” boarding school and bullied. He hit his stride with a move to the prestigious Sydney Grammar School, where he became a champion debater and head prefect.

“Malcolm has always seemed older than his years, perhaps through being a loner in his early youth and being impervious to peer-group pressure,” said Bruce McWilliam, another lifelong friend who later formed a legal partnership with Turnbull. “His strong self-reliance and his unique ability to cut through marked him out for leadership.”

While at university he annoyed some students when his beeper -- the only one at the school -- would ring during classes so he could leave for journalism commitments. All the while he built up a long list of contacts.

“There’s always been some who couldn’t do what Malcolm could do and were frankly jealous of him,” said O’Sullivan.

From university Turnbull had stints as a political journalist -- writing for the Bulletin under the wing of late mogul Kerry Packer -- completing a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, and turning his hand to law.

Spycatcher Case

In 1987 he gained national prominence in the so-called Spycatcher case, successfully defending a British expatriate’s right to publish a book on his history in MI5 against a vehement U.K. government. From there he moved into investment banking, real estate brokering and was an early investor in technology companies. “Financial independence gives you freedom,” he has said. “I like turning $1 into $10.”

Turnbull is best known for his time as Australian managing director at Goldman Sachs, which he joined because he liked “to play first division,” and for leading the effort for Australia to cut ties with the British monarchy. He fell short in that referendum against a campaign run by then-Prime Minister John Howard.

“I was struck by his infectious optimism,” said Barns. “When the polls showed he was going to lose, he renewed his vigor.” While Barns says Turnbull briefly disappeared from public life after the referendum defeat, he was already planning a new move -- into politics in 2004.

‘No Empathy’

After becoming opposition leader in 2008 -- the vanquished Brendan Nelson accused him of having a “narcissistic personality disorder” and “no empathy” -- Turnbull’s tenure was marred by complaints.

A newspaper with the headline about internal party political strife in November 2009.

Photographer: William West/AFP via Getty Images

In 2009, he cited what turned out to be fraudulent evidence to call on then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to resign for alleged corruption, damaging his own credibility and sowing the seeds of his downfall as Liberal leader. Turnbull said in an interview broadcast this week the affair made him “less rash and less trusting.”

“Malcolm Turnbull’s the sort of leader who thinks it’s perfectly okay to promise one thing before an election and then do the opposite afterwards,” Labor Senator Stephen Conroy said. “Here’s a guy who took office promising stronger leadership and better economic management, and on both counts he’s been a failure.”

Encouraged to stay on in politics by Howard, Turnbull bided his time before defeating Abbott by 54 votes to 44 in September’s leadership vote. He still has his critics within the coalition.

Current makeup of parliament

After Turnbull suggested in a television interview this month he had rebuked lawmaker Cory Bernardi for disparaging same-sex marriage, Bernardi accused Turnbull of seeking to “appease the baying crowd.” Backbencher Michelle Landry said in April the government’s performance under Turnbull was “wishy-washy.”

Abbott, also now on the backbench, has stayed in the public eye. In a Sky News interview this week he said: “This has been an election campaign where a lot of big issues have been touched on without really being developed.” That meant “less substantial stuff” had been debated.

Turnbull is “keen to demonstrate he’s learnt a lot since his first stint as leader, in terms of listening to people within his party and by being disciplined in his election campaign,” said Hewson. “But if he’s re-elected, the only way he’ll survive is if he stares down his opponents within the party and actually starts to tackle some of the bigger challenges.”