Turnbull Plays Down Tensions Within Australian Government

  • Predecessor Abbott has been criticizing Australia’s direction
  • Fight with conservatives risks return to leadership chaos

Malcolm Turnbull.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sought to focus attention on his plans to boost the economy, after conservative firebrand lawmaker Tony Abbott criticized the nation’s direction under Turnbull’s leadership.

“Australians are bored, fed up with journalists and politicians talking among themselves,” Turnbull, who led the Liberal-National coalition to a razor-thin one-seat election victory a year ago, told reporters Wednesday when asked about Abbott’s comments. “They’re not interested in the personalities among politicians.”

The coalition tensions come as Turnbull, 62, trails the opposition Labor party in opinion polls and struggles to present a cohesive policy agenda. He is still trying to get spending cuts through a parliament where non-government lawmakers hold the balance of power, leading to fears the nation may lose its AAA rating.

Still, while Australians haven’t warmed to the former banker’s leadership, they will be loathe to return to a period of chaos that saw the country churn through six prime ministers in a decade. That cycle of infighting in both major parties included Turnbull removing Abbott as prime minister.

Abbott, 59, used a speech in Brisbane on Tuesday to complain about Australia’s direction under Turnbull, saying it was “not working as it should" and "we are letting ourselves down."

“I’m in no hurry to leave public life because we need strong Liberal conservative voices now, more than ever," Abbott said.

Policy Whiplash

When Turnbull came to power he was known for backing socially progressive issues such as same-sex marriage and tougher action against climate change. But he’s mainly kept to policy positions instigated by Abbott’s administration. That’s led to accusations from Labor that coalition conservatives won’t allow Turnbull to put his own stamp on the leadership.

Some conservative lawmakers, who supported Abbott in a September 2015 Liberal party ballot that saw him ousted by Turnbull, have criticized comments made by House of Representatives party leader Christopher Pyne last week.

In a tape of a speech leaked to the media, Pyne said moderates in the Liberal party were in the “winner’s circle” under Turnbull and would be able to deliver same-sex marriage reform “sooner than everyone thinks.” Abbott, who implemented a policy -- still officially backed by Turnbull -- that Australians should first have a non-binding vote on marriage equality, accused Pyne of disloyalty.

There are calls for Pyne to be replaced as house leader, perhaps by conservative-leaning Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Tuesday, citing a government minister it did not identify.

Cabinet Chatter

While the ABC added there is speculation Turnbull will reshuffle his Cabinet this year, Turnbull said all his ministers had his support.

“The only personalities I’m interested in are 24 million Australians,” he said Wednesday. “My job and my government’s job is to deliver for them.”

Labor leads the coalition by 53 percent to 47 percent on a two-party preferred basis, according to a Newspoll published in The Australian on June 19. According to the newspaper, should such a result be replicated at an election the coalition would only win 56 seats in the 150-seat lower house, handing power to Bill Shorten-led Labor.

“The Liberal Party’s at war with itself,” Shorten told reporters Wednesday in Sydney. “You can’t open a newspaper, you can’t turn on a television without the Liberals” criticizing each other, he said.

Betting agency Sportsbet still favors Turnbull to lead the Liberals to the next election, which is due to be held by 2019. A winning A$1 bet on him would pay A$2.30 ($1.75), with Dutton at A$3.75, Abbott at A$6, Treasurer Scott Morrison at A$7 and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at A$8.

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