News analysis

New Aussie PM hard-pressed to please both party and voters

Mr Malcolm Turnbull (third from right) posing with his family after he was sworn in as Australia's 29th prime minister on Tuesday.
Mr Malcolm Turnbull (third from right) posing with his family after he was sworn in as Australia's 29th prime minister on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Turnbull long viewed with suspicion by party's conservatives

In a suburb of Sydney this week, a long-time Labor voter admitted that the nation's sudden change of leader was making him contemplate some changes of his own.

Explaining why he would consider voting for Mr Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal party for the first time, Mr Bassem Ibrahim said  the new Prime Minister has "been wanting the position for quite a while".

"Maybe he has got something to offer and some good ideas, which is what is needed at the moment," he told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

It is people like Mr Ibrahim who persuaded the Liberal party to do what it has never done before: depose a first-time sitting prime minister. Following a run of dismal polls for former leader Tony Abbott, the party decided in a 54-44 vote to switch to Mr Turnbull, who is far more personally popular. But the Liberals now find themselves led by a man who is on the progressive side of the party and who has long been viewed with suspicion by its more conservative wing. 

As Mr Turnbull, 60, prepares to unveil his new Cabinet this weekend and begin formulating a new direction for the country, analysts say his biggest challenge will be to try to assure the conservatives that he will not unilaterally impose his own progressive views. But he will need to do so while assuring the public that he is not abandoning his principles or the strength of character which first won them over.

His first test will come as soon as Saturday, when the government faces a by-election in the seat of Canning in Western Australia to replace an MP who died. Though the date has been set for weeks, the vote will now be seen as something of a referendum on Mr Turnbull's popularity.

The party holds the seat by a comfortable margin, but opinion polls suggested it was facing a 10 per cent swing against it under Mr Abbott. 

If the Liberals do better than expected - or even improve their vote - it will be seen as a public show of confidence in the party's risky move to dump its elected leader. 

A second, more significant test for Mr Turnbull will be the make-up of his new Cabinet, which will be sworn in on Monday. He will need to reward those who supported his leadership challenge, but will also need to avoid making enemies of Mr Abbott's loyalists. 

Commentators believe he will dump Treasurer Joe Hockey in favour of Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, a strong performer who has support among the party's conservative members. Some have suggested he will replace Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, who backed Mr Abbott but has made it known he wants to keep his job.

In his first full day in office yesterday, Mr Turnbull would not reveal any of his Cabinet changes but indicated he wanted to include more women. Mr Abbott was criticised for including just one woman in his first 19-member Cabinet after winning the election in 2013. "There is no greater enthusiast than me for seeing more women in positions of power and influence in Parliament, in ministries right across the country," Mr Turnbull said. 

The Cabinet line-up will help begin to answer what commentator Paul Kelly yesterday described as the "eternal" question: Can Mr Turnbull hold the party together? "Will he be a strong leader or does the imperative to mend the party lock him into a series of dangerous 'concessions for internal peace'?" Mr Kelly wrote in The Australian.

So far, Mr Turnbull has passed the most immediate test and made it clear he will not impose his own views on issues such as climate change and same-sex marriage. Instead, he said he will stick with Mr Abbott's more conservative positions and will await the new Cabinet before considering changes.

But this has led to fierce attacks from the Opposition which has repeatedly goaded him by recalling his previous push for a free vote of MPs on same-sex marriage and for the introduction of  a carbon emissions trading scheme.

"Has the Prime Minister sold out his principles to achieve his personal ambition?" Opposition leader Bill Shorten asked yesterday.

In the coming weeks and months, this question will no doubt be on the minds of voters such as Mr Ibrahim. And the danger for Mr Turnbull is that he will be able to placate  the party  or Mr Ibrahim, but not both.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'New Aussie PM hard-pressed to please both party and voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe