Malcolm Turnbull wins Australia’s political ‘killing season’

The new prime minister will have to compromise on his beliefs to win over his party

Malcolm Turnbull, sworn in as Australia’s sixth PM in eight years, has pledge to revitalise an economy battered by the slowdown in China. Photograph: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Malcolm Turnbull, sworn in as Australia’s sixth PM in eight years, has pledge to revitalise an economy battered by the slowdown in China. Photograph: Mark Graham/Bloomberg


When he was 21, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull told friends he wanted to be prime minister one day. It took him another 39 years, but he finally got there on Tuesday.

Along the way he has been a journalist, lawyer, investment banker, venture capitalist and leader of Australia’s republican movement. He has converted from Presbyterian to Catholic, defended former MI5 agent Peter Wright in the infamous Spycatcher case almost 30 years ago, and amassed a fortune worth close to AU$200 million (€126 million). The canniest piece of business he did was investing AU$500,000 in internet service provider Ozemail in 1994 and selling it for AU$57 million five years later.

By moving from his house in Point Piper – Australia’s most expensive street – to the prime minister’s Sydney mansion at Kirribilli, he will be downsizing.

Given his middle name, many assume Turnbull is a descendant of Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. He isn’t, but that middle name has been a Turnbull family tradition since Bligh’s brief reign as governor of New South Wales.

Turnbull’s deposing of Tony Abbott on Monday to replace him as prime minister will be seen as mutinous by many within his own Liberal Party (Turnbull won the vote by 54-44). But it was more of a coup d’état, albeit carried out with military precision. There was talk of a challenge being imminent, but nobody predicted the end would come so quickly.

In retrospect, Turnbull’s suggestion last week that Syrian Christians should be prioritised over Muslims in being allowed to come to Australia as refugees was a clue he was doing the numbers to challenge. It seemed odd Turnbull, from the “small l” liberal wing of his party, would express a view more associated with the dominant conservative wing. The fix was in, but nobody spotted it.

Just as Julia Gillard had to make promises to the mostly Catholic social conservatives of the Labor Party – such as not supporting same-sex marriage – in order to get their backing to overthrow then prime minister Kevin Rudd, Turnbull has undoubtedly made similar promises to the mostly Protestant social conservatives of the Liberal Party – such as not doing anything about same-sex marriage in this term of government – to overthrow Abbott.

In opposition, Turnbull served as Liberal Party leader from September 16th, 2008, when he deposed Brendan Nelson, to December 1st, 2009, when he was deposed by Abbott. Turnbull announced he would leave politics at the 2010 election, but changed his mind after the intervention of former prime minister John Howard.

For Turnbull, revenge is a dish best served lukewarm. Just as Rudd eventually did to Gillard what she did to him, Turnbull has done to Abbott what Abbott did to him. Not for nothing was a recent documentary on Australian politics called The Killing Season.

Turnbull faces an immediate test with a by-election on Saturday in the Western Australia seat of Canning. In the 2013 election the Liberals won it with an almost 12 per cent margin, but were in danger of losing it with a massive swing to Labor. There is now no danger of the seat being lost, even if the Liberal candidate, former army officer Andrew Hastie, is an odd character who refuses to say whether or not he is a creationist. But, in fairness to the Liberals, asking someone if they believe the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs and humans lived side by side isn’t the first question that comes to mind for the candidate screening process.

Beyond the weekend, there are immediate challenges for Turnbull. To borrow a slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Australia’s China-driven resources boom is over, unemployment is rising, growth is slowing and the budget deficit has blown out from AU$30 billion when Labor lost power in 2013 to AU$48 billion.

But Turnbull has proven through his enormous business success that he is an economic rationalist. He is also the most popular politician in Australia, regularly outpolling Abbott and Labor leader Bill Shorten. Labor’s poll lead of 54-46 after preferences is likely to be wiped out in the next poll, due within days.

Turnbull will have a honeymoon period with voters; just don’t expect him to do much about issues previously dear to him such as climate change, Australia becoming a republic, or same-sex marriage.