Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Australia’s prime minister today, having ousted Tony Abbott in a leadership challenge voted on by MPs in Australia’s federal parliament.
He became Australia’s fifth prime minister in as many years, with leadership instability becoming an entrenched feature of modern Australian politics.
Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, who turns 61 next month, has lived in his electorate of Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, his entire life. He grew up in Vaucluse and Double Bay raised by his father, Bruce, in difficult financial circumstances, as an only child. He went to Vaucluse Public School and then Sydney Grammar School with help from a scholarship.
He went on to study law at Sydney University, working part time as a journalist on TV, radio and in print, then earned a Rhodes Scholarship, completing a further law degree at Oxford.
Turnbull became a barrister and started practising in 1980, defending former MI5 agent Peter Wright after he published the memoir Spycatcher in Australia. The British government accused Wright of breaching the official secrets act and attempted to have the book withdrawn, but Turnbull won a famous victory, and spy agencies were forced to rewrite the act to prevent former spies revealing their service.
His father died in December 1982 in a light plane crash in northern New South Wales, aged 56. The year before, Bruce Turnbull bought a farm in the Hunter Valley, and his son still uses it as a retreat to this day. His father taught Australia’s newest prime minister to ride and he still uses his father’s saddle. Bruce Turnbull was buried on the property.
His mother died in 1991.
“I don’t know that I ever really understood my mother,” Turnbull recounted to the ABC six years ago.
“My mother was an academic and a writer and tended to keep bits of paper more than my father did, and I found among her papers some rather, some very touching but reproachful letters from my father complaining about how she had left us.”
Turnbull met his wife, Lucy Hughes, in 1977, the year before he headed to London on his Rhodes scholarship.
“I fell in love with Lucy the moment I met her,” he recounts. “I have a much stronger sense of Lucy and me than I have of me and Lucy as separate entities.”
He returned to convince her to move overseas and they married in 1980 in England, despite the fact that she was Catholic and Presbyterian, using his legal skills to convince an Anglican minister to marry them, telling him “you are part of an established church in the UK, so you’re like a public servant, and you have a duty to prevent fornication in your parish and we’re a young couple living together”.
They had two children, Alex and Daisy, and are now grandparents. Lucy was the lord mayor of Sydney, 2003-04.
By 1987, Turnbull had left the law for business, co-founding an investment bank, Whitlam Turnbull & Co Ltd, with former NSW premier Neville Wran and Gough Whitlam’s son, Nicholas, a former bank executive. Whitlam left three years later and it became Turnbull & Partners Ltd.
In 1994, Turnbull invested $500,000 in Ozemail, Australia’s first large internet service provider, selling his stake for $57 million five years later in 1999.
He went on to join Goldman Sachs Australia in 1997 as chairman and managing director, becoming a partner in the global firm a year later.
His personal wealth is estimated at more than $100 million.
Turnbull was chairman of the Australian Republican Movement 1993-2000, including during the 1999 referendum, which was lost, and led Turnbull to say Liberal leader John Howard was “the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”.
Turnbull’s first involvement with the Liberal Party dated back to 1973 at university and says he “very, very narrowly missed out” on pre-selection for Wentworth in 1981. He went on to win pre-selection in 2004, challenging the incumbent, Peter King, who then stood as an independent. He spent three years as chairman of the conservative think tank the Menzies Research Centre, 2002-2004.
His first role in the Howard government was as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister from January 2006. The following year he became environment minister until the Coalition lost power to Kevin Rudd in 2007.
Turnbull served as shadow treasurer before seizing the leadership from Brendan Nelson (now director of the Australian War Memorial) in September 2008 in a 45-41 vote. His leadership came under pressure from the right wing side of the Liberal Party over his support for Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme and his standing was damaged after he misled parliament in accusing Rudd and treasurer Wayne Swan of acting improperly in what became known as the OzCar affair. Turnbull’s claims were based emails from a Treasury official named Godwin Grech which turned out to have been forged.
He was ousted in a leadership spill in December 2009 by Tony Abbott and announced four months later that he’d retire from politics, only to have a change of heart a few weeks later in May 2010. His primary vote jumped 11% at the 2010 tied election and he became shadow communications minister after the ALP formed minority government.
When Abbott assumed power in 2013, Turnbull became communications minister, rolling out the Coalition’s NBN plan, but Turnbull was never shy in offering veiled critiques of government policies he didn’t agree with.
He did not put his hand up to challenge when a leadership spill against Tony Abbott occurred in February 2015. Less than six hours after announcing a challenge for the top job, he was successful in his bid to become Australia’s 29th prime minister.
He is also the first Liberal MP to depose a standing prime minister.
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