IT was a shortlived honeymoon for new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, with opponents accusing him of selling his ideological soul on issues from climate change to gay marriage in order to snatch the nation’s top job.
Opinion polls suggest the new leader is popular but there are questions about how his public image might evolve in office. There are also doubts that this self-made multimillionaire – once dumped as party leader – will become a unifying figure who can lead his Liberal Party to victory in next year’s elections.
As prime minister, Turnbull has already shifted some of his stances on key issues. Previously, he riled the more conservative elements of his coalition by arguing for tougher action on Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions – calling for polluters to pay for the carbon they emit – and advocating marriage equality.
But after he ousted his predecessor, Tony Abbott, in an internal party vote on Monday, Turnbull essentially promised the more conservative junior coalition partner, the rural-based Nationals, he would keep the party line on climate change and opposing gay marriage.
Climate change appeared to be an issue Turnbull felt passionately about. When he was dumped in 2009 after 14 months as opposition leader, he defiantly told his colleagues: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”
Abbott’s government last year repealed a carbon tax that had been levied for two years on the country’s worst industrial polluters, and instead offered A$2.55 billion (£1.2bn) in taxpayer-funded incentives to encourage polluters to operate more cleanly – a policy Turnbull now says he backs.
The opposition Labor Party accused Turnbull of flip-flopping for political expediency.
“Australians have been coming to understand the price that the member for Wentworth [Turnbull’s electoral district] was willing to pay to achieve his long-held personal ambition of becoming prime minister,” Labor climate change spokesman Mark Butler said.
Turnbull acknowledged that he and his colleagues had shifted policy on climate change, but said their collective commitment to reducing greenhouse gases had not changed.
“We have changed our policy. The critical question is: What is our goal? Our goal is cutting emissions. We are doing that,” Turnbull told Parliament.
While standing by government policy, Turnbull told Parliament that his first cabinet, to be sworn in on Monday, would be open to change.
“Every policy of any rational, constructive government is always under review,” he said.
Turnbull has given little away about his cabinet line-up, other than to say it will include more women. But in a sign that not everyone in the government is behind him, a cabinet document was leaked to Fairfax Media on Thursday that showed Turnbull had been the Abbott cabinet’s worst performing minister in appointing women to oversee government afencies.
The Australian public may become disillusioned with Turnbull in power because he was compromised by a need to retain the support of his government’s powerful right wing bloc of lawmakers, said Darren Halpin, an Australian National University political expert.