Turnbull ditches upbeat tone in wake of Brexit

AUSTRALIA'S PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL
AUSTRALIA'S PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL

A week before election, Aussie PM warns voters that nation now needs a 'steady hand'

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has officially launched his election campaign, abandoning his typically upbeat tone to warn voters of the need for "stability" in the wake of Britain's Brexit vote. 

Just days before the general poll this Saturday, Mr Turnbull used his last major speech of the campaign, which began unofficially on May 8, to call for "calm heads" to weather the coming global instability. 

In a noticeable shift from his previous insistence that Australia was headed for exciting times, Mr Turnbull, a former investment banker, was quick yesterday to present himself as a steady hand following Britain's vote last week to leave the European Union.

"The opportunities have never been greater, but so is the competition, so are the uncertainties," he said. "The shockwaves in the past 48 hours from Britain's vote to leave the European Union are a sharp reminder of the volatility in the global economy. Calm heads, steady hands and a strong economic plan are critical for Australia to withstand any of these negative repercussions."

Mr Turnbull, whose ruling coalition has higher approval ratings on handling the economy than the opposition Labor Party, warned that Australia's economy could fall "off the back of the pack" if Labor were elected.

DON'T DEPEND ON LUCK

We have always been a lucky country - but today more than ever we need to make our own luck.

AUSTRALIA'S PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL

Most pundits believe that Brexit should be a political positive for Mr Turnbull, who would prefer to campaign on the economy than on social issues such as health and education, where Labor rates strongly.

Mr Turnbull used his speech yesterday to announce A$192 million (S$194 million) of extra spending on mental health programmes and suicide prevention.

He has campaigned on pledges to cut corporate taxes, enforce strong border security measures, increase infrastructure  and public transport spending  and to deliver lower budget deficits than Labor.

"Our clear economic plan is more essential than ever as we enter this period of uncertainty," he said.

"We have always been a lucky country - but today more than ever we need to make our own luck."

Political commentator Mark Kenny said Mr Turnbull's previously hopeful message appeared to have undergone an "ominous reconfiguration" following the Brexit result.

"Turnbull's optimistic message has changed… now it's more accurately described as a message of fear with the previous hope and opportunity aspect bolted on for the sake of intellectual consistency and political respectability," he wrote yesterday on Fairfax Media websites.

"What started out as 'there's never been a more exciting time to be an Australian' has been rejigged to read 'there has never been a riskier time to contemplate a change of government'."

Polls show the Liberal-National Coalition is tied on 50-50 with Labor, but Mr Turnbull is widely expected to be re-elected because the coalition leads in many crucial marginal seats. But the polls have tightened following a strong campaign by opposition leader  Bill Shorten, who has pledged to curb tax breaks for property investors and boost education and health spending. 

Mr Turnbull's official launch was held in the seat of Reid, one of several marginal seats in western Sydney. Political parties tend to launch their official campaigns close to the election because MPs can typically no longer claim parliamentary travel allowances after the launch. 

The relatively low-key launch was attended by former Liberal Party prime ministers John Howard and - notably - Tony Abbott, who was ousted as leader by Mr Turnbull last September.

Observers suggested that Mr Abbott did not appear particularly happy to be attending. It was reportedly the first time that he appeared in public together with Mr Turnbull after his ousting. 

Paying tribute to the man he deposed, Mr Turnbull declared: "Tony, you brought to an end the chaos and dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard years and you remain a powerful and dedicated advocate too for our great cause." He was referring to the two Labor leaders who ruled from 2007 to 2013.

Mr Turnbull yesterday warned that voters should avoid voting for small parties or independents to prevent the "havoc" of a hung Parliament. Polls have shown strong support for parties like the Greens and a new party formed by popular independent MP Nick Xenophon and prominent independents such as Tasmanian MP Jacqui Lambie.

A strong showing by smaller parties could make it hard for Mr Turnbull to pass legislation in the Senate, where the Coalition is unlikely to win a majority.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull ditches upbeat tone in wake of Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe