Australia's New Leader Takes Helm ; Malcolm Turnbull Faces Challenge of Running an Effective Government

By Innis, Michelle | International New York Times, September 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Australia's New Leader Takes Helm ; Malcolm Turnbull Faces Challenge of Running an Effective Government


Innis, Michelle, International New York Times


Malcolm Turnbull will have to lead not just the lawmakers in his own party, but a country where policy in recent years often seems to have been made on the run.

When Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in on Tuesday, he did not just become Australia's 29th prime minister -- he became its fourth in just over two years. His three immediate predecessors were ousted by their own parties, including Tony Abbott, who was forced out Monday in a leadership challenge led by Mr. Turnbull.

Now that Mr. Turnbull, a wealthy lawyer and former investment banker, has the country's top job, his main challenge is clear, said Hugh White, an intelligence analyst who from 1985 to 1991 advised Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Defense Minister Kim Beazley.

"The key question is whether he can run an effective government," Mr. White said. "That hasn't happened since 2007."

With Australia's next election less than a year away, the governing Liberal Party -- which, despite its name, is conservative - - rejected the deeply unpopular Mr. Abbott in favor of Mr. Turnbull, a comparatively centrist figure whose views on climate change and other issues are more in line with Australian public opinion.

But Mr. Turnbull will have to lead not just the lawmakers in his own party -- 44 of whom did not vote for him on Monday night, against 54 who did -- but also a country where policy in recent years often seems to have been made on the run, and often in response to flagging opinion polls.

Australia's current political turmoil dates to the Labor Party government of Kevin Rudd, who became prime minister in 2007.

Mr. Rudd was ousted in an internal party coup in 2010 and replaced by Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister. As Ms. Gillard's poll numbers fell, the party reinstalled Mr. Rudd months before the election of 2013, which Mr. Abbott's conservative coalition won.

Already a polarizing figure when he took office, Mr. Abbott saw his popularity decline amid a slowing economy as he made a series of political missteps and alienated many voters with his strongly conservative stances and often-abrasive style.

Bob Gregory, a professor of economics at Australian National University, said Mr. Turnbull's task would be largely one of communication. "What Mr. Turnbull has to do is straightforward," Mr. Gregory said. "He's got to explain things. You've no idea how powerful that is."

In his pitch for the job, Mr. Turnbull promised to consult with colleagues and the public more often, saying Australians need advocacy from their leader, and not slogans.

That will include managing the Liberals' governing coalition with the smaller, more conservative National Party, which is unlikely to embrace attempts by Mr. Turnbull to move to the center.

Mr. Gregory, the professor, said he expected few policy changes from Mr. Turnbull in the short term. Indeed, in his first session of Parliament as prime minister on Tuesday, Mr. Turnbull made it clear that on at least two issues over which he has criticized Mr. Abbott in the past -- climate change and same-sex marriage -- his predecessor's policies would continue.

Mr. Turnbull, who once used an expletive to describe Mr. Abbott's climate-change policies, said that carbon emissions reduction targets Mr. Abbott recently proposed, which have been criticized as inadequate by scientists and environmentalists, were "very substantial. …

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