Malcolm Turnbull: The man who couldn’t be king


What will outgoing prime minister Malcolm Turnbull be remembered for?

Australia’s wealthiest prime minister entered politics with a fearsome reputation as a corporate deal-maker who as a 36-year-old merchant banker told a journalist “humility is for saints”.

But Malcolm Turnbull, now 63, leaves parliament with a shaky legacy. The Lib majority in the Lower House is wafer-thin, the Senate is radical, and his former party is in turmoil.

Mr Turnbull stepped aside as prime minister on Friday afternoon, handing over the leadership to Treasurer Scott Morrison. It was the second leadership challenge in a week, after former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton launched a challenge, sparking of a week of bloodletting in Canberra.

Always a moderate, Mr Turnbull believed in a republic, climate change and same-sex marriage. He was the prime minister who paved the way for legalising same-sex marriage in Australia and pushed for a national energy policy that included renewables.

But his progressive policies made him a target for conservative elements of the Liberal Party.


How did we get here?

During both their long years in opposition and in the afterglow of the 2013 election, Liberal Party members made much of the Rudd-Gillard leadership chaos – dismissing Labor as dysfunctional. But in 2015, the Liberal government found itself in a similar position.

Voter dissatisfaction with then-prime minister Tony Abbott came to the fore following Mr Abbott’s Australia Day “captain’s call” – appointing Prince Philip an Australian knighthood in a move that puzzled many and triggered an unsuccessful spill motion a month later.

The prime ministers of Australia since 2007: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
The prime ministers of Australia since 2007: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

In September, when Mr Turnbull successfully rolled the PM, he promised to turn around floundering polls. But he never quiet delivered and was continually haunted by his self-imposed “30 Newspolls” red line.

In September 2015, Mr Turnbull cited the loss of 30 Newspolls as a justification for rolling his leader – but earlier this year found himself in an almost identical losing position and was even forced to concede he “regretted” using the polling defeats as a justification for a spill.

“The substantive reasons I stated were related to economic leadership and governance,” he said.

Despite moving to the backbench and promising “no wrecking, no undermining”, Mr Abbott has been a continual thorn in Mr Turnbull’s side since.This week amid the ongoing leadership chaos, Mr Abbott was blasted by Queensland MP Warren Entsch, who took aim at the former PM for throwing fuel on the fire through his constant sniping at policy.

Despite backing the Paris climate agreement while in power in 2015, Mr Abbott went after Mr Turnbull in July, demanding he abandon the emissions reduction targets.

A PM with cash to burn

The skills that made Mr Turnbull his fortune didn’t necessarily make him a good prime minister. Nor did having a cool $200 million necessarily help in a country where the ideas of equality and the fair go are entwined in the national ethos.

In 1991, the up and coming merchant banker and powerful lawyer uttered a brash phrase that would come back to haunt him for some time: “Humility is for saints”.

Mr Turnbull speaks with the media for the last time on Friday.
Mr Turnbull speaks with the media for the last time on Friday.


Throughout his tenure as prime minister, Labor hammered home attacks about his wealth – dubbing him “Mr Harbourside Mansion” and the “Member for Networth”, in a play on his affluent inner-Sydney seat of Wentworth, dubbed to be the only seat to have more barristers than baristas on the electoral roll.

Once Twitter enabled emojis, many Turnbull detractors started using a top hat symbol to reference the PM.

But throughout it all, he kept his cool, even donating his $500,000 plus salary to charity as PM.

Humble roots

Mr Turnbull wasn’t born rich. He was brought up from the age of nine by a single father.

He excelled academically at Sydney Grammar and completed an Arts/Law degree at Sydney University despite a multitude of distractions which included political journalism for mainstream media and student politics.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, wife Lucy and daughter Daisy leave after his farewell press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, wife Lucy and daughter Daisy leave after his farewell press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.

He went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar for more legal studies and political journalism and married the well-connected Lucy Hughes. She is the daughter of former Australian attorney-general Tom Hughes and went on to be Lord Mayor of Sydney (2003-2004) and a City of Sydney councillor. The couple have two children and three grandchildren.

Mr Turnbull really made his name as a lawyer in the 1986 Spycatcher case in which he routed a battery of British QCs and Margaret Thatcher's top bureaucrat by winning the right for former British spy Peter Wright to publish his memoirs.

In 1987, he co-founded an investment bank and in 1998 became a partner at Goldman Sachs. His biggest coup was investing $500,000 in internet service provider Ozemail in 1994 and selling it five years later for $57 million.

What issues will he be remembered for?

Mr Turnbull positioned his prime ministership as centre right – a counter point to the more conservative Abbott years – and gave Australia a vote on legalising same-sex marriage and pushed hard for a plan to legislate emissions targets.

The then-PM made a conservative case for same-sex marriage, saying it would result in stronger families and more “loving commitment”. While some progressives attacked Mr Turnbull for putting the matter to a vote, he campaigned for the “yes” vote saying "I am very firmly of the view that families are the foundation of our society and we would be a stronger society if more people were married and fewer were divorced”.

"Many people will vote 'yes' – as I will – because they believe the right to marry is a conservative ideal as much as any other conservative principle," he said. The forward-thinking PM also abolished the knights and dames honours systems, labelling it anachronistic and out of date" – in direct opposition to predecessor Mr Abbott.

In 2016, Mr Turnbull addressed parliament in the language of the Ngunawal people as part of the introduction of his Closing the Gap policy, which aims to reduce disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with respect to life expectancy, child mortality, access to early childhood education, educational achievement, and employment outcomes.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy speaks to the media during the 40th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy speaks to the media during the 40th annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade in Sydney.

He also called Australia "the most successful multicultural country in the world", pushing the country on the international stage.

But many of his policies left him exposed to attack from the party’s right. In her open resignation letter this week, International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells attacked her leader: “The party was moving too far to the left”.

Turnbull's early political activity was heading the Australian Republican Movement, which culminated in the failed 1999 referendum and his denunciation of then-prime minister John Howard as the man "who broke a nation's heart".

His interest in politics revived, Mr Turnbull turned his attention to the safe Sydney seat of Wentworth and after a bitter preselection battle dislodged the sitting Liberal member, Peter King.

He came to federal parliament in 2004 and was a man in a hurry. Before his first term was over he was in cabinet as Environment Minister.

The 2007 election brought Labor back to power and Mr Turnbull challenging for the Liberal leadership. He lost by three votes to Brendan Nelson.

He didn't have long to wait. With Mr Nelson languishing in the polls, Mr Turnbull challenged in September 2008 and won by four votes.

Tricky moments

But the Godwin Grech affair in 2009 would damage him. Mr Grech, a Treasury official, leaked to Turnbull an email that purported to show then-Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and then-treasurer Wayne Swan misused a government program to help a car dealer mate.

Turnbull went in all guns blazing, hammering Labor in question time, without proper checks and the email turned out to be fake.

Godwin Grech.
Godwin Grech.

Even more damaging was Mr Turnbull's support for the government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which split the party.

Tony Abbott challenged and won by one vote and after the Abbott government sailed into power in 2013, Mr Turnbull became Communications Minister with the job of sorting out the NBN.

As Abbott struggled, Turnbull positioned. That move left many conservatives in the Coalition party room and broader party organisation without a champion in The Lodge but they persevered with the moderate leader, until now.

That election

In May 2016, Turnbull took a big risk and called a double dissolution election.

He won - by a single seat, the closest result since 1961. The new Senate was more unruly than ever.

Through his term he struggled with the polls, though he remained preferred prime minister over Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. This dichotomy was underlined by the "Super Saturday" by-elections in July when Labor retained four seats, the Centre Alliance picked up the South Australian seat of Mayo and the Liberals failed to perform.

But on Friday the self-made multimillionaire was declared not to be a man of the people by those in his party.

“Same-sex marriage is legal, we delivered that historic reform. We have also established a national redress scheme for the victims of child sexual abuse,” he said in his final address as prime minister. 

“I remain optimistic about our nation’s future.”

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