New Australian PM says government remains strong

2015-09-15 09:00
Malcolm Turnbull. (AFP)

Malcolm Turnbull. (AFP)

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Canberra - Australia's former communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was sworn in as prime minister on Tuesday, assuring the country that his government remained strong despite an internal party revolt that made him the nation's fourth leader in little more than two years and will leave deep divisions in his administration's ranks.

Turnbull was sworn in as Australia's 29th prime minister after a surprise ballot of his conservative Liberal Party colleagues voted 54-44 on Monday night to replace Prime Minister Tony Abbott only two years after he was elected. Turnbull's elevation has cemented a culture of disposable leaders as the new norm in Australian politics since the 11-year tenure of Prime Minister John Howard ended in 2007.

"There's been a change of prime minister, but we are a very, very strong government, a very strong country with a great potential and we will realise that potential working very hard together," Turnbull told reporters as he left his Canberra apartment on Tuesday morning.

"This is a turn of events I did not expect, I have to tell you, but it's one that I'm privileged to undertake and one that I'm certainly up to," he added.

Shortly before Turnbull was sworn in, a grim-faced Abbott spoke for the first time since his sudden ouster, warning that the persistent volatility in Australia's government could hurt the nation's standing on the global stage.

Moderate views

"Australia has a role to play in the struggles of the wider world: the cauldron of the Middle East and security in the South China Sea and elsewhere," Abbott told reporters. "I fear that none of this will be helped if the leadership instability that's plagued other countries continues to taint us."

Abbott did not say during his speech whether he will quit politics. But said he would not destabilize the new prime minister.

Turnbull, a 60-year-old former journalist, lawyer and merchant banker known for his moderate views, was party leader for two years before he was ousted in 2009 by Abbott by a single vote in a similar leadership ballot.

Abbott, a 57-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian, has been described as the most socially conservative Australian prime minister in decades, while Turnbull is considered not conservative enough by the right wing of the party.

Abbott acknowledged his government had not been perfect, though he blamed the poll-heavy culture of modern politics for the frequent upheaval in the nation's leadership.

"We have been a government of men and women, not a government of gods walking upon the earth. Few of us, after all, entirely measure up to expectations," Abbott said. "The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before — mostly sour, bitter character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving door prime ministership, which can't be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery."

Government’s policies

Turnbull's return to the helm will likely lead to a major Cabinet reshuffle, with Treasurer Joe Hockey and Defense Minister Kevin Andrews among the ministers who publicly supported Abbott.

Andrews, a senior figure in the party's right wing, on Tuesday argued that he should retain his defense portfolio.

Andrews challenged Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, a Turnbull supporter, for the Liberal Party's deputy leadership on Monday night, but was defeated by a vote of 70 to 30.

"I did it as a way of reaching out and saying to him that I can work with him, that I believe other people like me can work with him, and that's what we've got to do," Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in explaining his challenge to Bishop. "There's always hurt and frustration and grief at these circumstances. That's natural. That's human."

Unlike Abbott, Turnbull has supported Australia making polluters pay for their carbon gas emissions to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and legalising gay marriage.

But Bishop said the government's policies would not change without consultation with Liberal Party lawmakers.

"The policies remain until they're changed and they're only changed through a process of discussion and consultation with the party room," she said.

Tax revenue

She said the party had moved against Abbott because he had not delivered on a promise made in February to improve the government's standing in opinion polls within six months.

"He asked for six months to turn things around. Well, seven months later a majority of the party room felt he hadn't done that," Bishop said.

The political turbulence comes as Australia enters its record 25th year of continuous economic growth. However, a cooling mining boom that helped Australia avoid recession during the global financial crisis has slashed tax revenue and slowed growth while a hostile Senate has blocked key parts of the government's financial agenda.

The Liberals were elected in 2013 as a stable alternative to the then-Labour government. Labour came to power under Kevin Rudd at elections in 2007, only to dump him for his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010 months ahead of elections. The bitterly divided and chaotic government then dumped Gillard for Rudd just months before the 2013 election.

Successive opinion polls showed that the government was likely to lose in next September's elections under Abbott's leadership.

Opinion polls show that Turnbull is more popular than Abbott, but many of those who prefer him vote for the centre-left Labour Party.

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