Australia PM Turnbull can't shake off elitist baggage despite modest upbringing

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares victory for the ruling conservatives at a press conference in Sydney on July 10, 2016.
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declares victory for the ruling conservatives at a press conference in Sydney on July 10, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Multi-millionaire former banker and lawyer Malcolm Turnbull has clung to power in Australia, but the tech-savvy grandfather dubbed "Mr Harbourside Mansion" won only a begrudging victory with voters.

Turnbull called the election early, hoping to shore up his power after ousting fellow conservative Tony Abbott in a Liberal Party vote in September but the move appears to have backfired.

His declaration of victory on Sunday - which came a protracted eight days after the July 2 polls - gave the 61-year-old only a narrow victory, with uncertainty over whether he will form a minority or majority government.

The election reduced Turnbull's Liberal/National government's seats in parliament, and the ongoing vote count by the electoral commission has so far given the coalition 74 seats, two short of a parliamentary majority.

With a campaign slogan out of an American sitcom, Turnbull suffered criticism that he was out-of-touch with ordinary Australians as he pitched to retain the nation's leadership on his economic credentials.

His removal of a sitting prime minister alienated some voters, and Abbott's former aide Peta Credlin dubbed him "Mr Harbourside Mansion" when he failed to do a street walk in one of Sydney's less affluent western suburbs.

Even a sentimental video highlighting his modest upbringing with a single parent dad, who did his best after Turnbull's mother left, failed to pierce this perception.

"Turnbull lacks the common touch," noted distinguished commentator Paul Kelly in The Weekend Australian after the election. "Too many people see him as an elitist."

Rich, suave and sophisticated, Turnbull has long been a public figure, and was seen as having socially progressive views on issues such as climate change and gay marriage before he took over from the hard-line Abbott.

As he enjoyed an early honeymoon in polls, he was seen as the conservative who could win over swinging left-leaning voters while at the same time implement the economic agenda needed to spur growth.

But he presided over uncertainty on tax policy, which was compounded by the perception that even as prime minister he was constrained by the more conservative elements of his party, a charge he has disputed.

The nation's 29th prime minister shot to prominence in the 1980s in the "Spycatcher" trial in which he successfully defended former MI5 agent Peter Wright against the British government. A former journalist, he moved into banking and business before politics.

He had long been seen as prime ministerial material, and after months of meticulous planning was able to oust Abbott 54-44 in last year's dramatic Liberal Party room vote.

The silver-haired grandfather immediately pledged to provide economic leadership, while being a more consultative leader, restoring traditional Cabinet government and ending policy-on-the-run.

But Turnbull has struggled to convince voters that his leadership was different to Abbott's, at one point explaining his government as providing both "continuity" and "change".

The line is uncannily like the "Continuity with Change" slogan used by the fictional politician Selina Meyer in the political satire "Veep", prompting the show's star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to say she was "dumbstruck" by the coincidence.

Although he has lived in Sydney's wealthy eastern suburbs his whole life, Turnbull's upbringing was difficult - an only child reared by his hotel room broker father after his mother, a writer and academic, left.

He was educated at Sydney Grammar with the help of a scholarship and went on to be a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, before working as a journalist and then turning to the law.

From law he entered the corporate world, becoming a merchant banker with Goldman Sachs and then investing in technology start-ups, before spearheading a failed push for Australia to turn itself into a republic.

He entered parliament in 2004 - and was a minister under both former leader John Howard and Abbott - but he has endured a bumpy ride, being dumped as opposition leader for Abbott in 2009 after bitter debate on climate change.

Married to Lucy Hughes since 1980, with whom he has two adult children, the Turnbulls are a high-profile couple. Lucy was the first female Lord Mayor of Sydney.