Australia now has its fifth prime minister in just over five years, after Tory leader Tony Abbott was toppled in an internal party coup last week.
His governing Liberal Party was on track for electoral annihilation. A savage budget last year targeted cuts at pensioners, students, the unemployed, Aboriginal people and the health system all at once.
Abbott came to office in 2013 on the back of disillusionment with a Labour government that had talked of change but delivered cuts and neoliberalism.
He only managed to win by promising “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions” and no cuts to the public broadcaster, the ABC.
All these promises were broken in the government’s first budget. There was an enormous backlash, the upper house of parliament blocked most of the cuts, and Abbott never really recovered.
His conservatism over same-sex marriage, open attacks on Muslim leaders and contempt for any action on climate change lost him public support.
Abbott’s replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, is a former merchant banker and partner at Goldman Sachs. He has a personal fortune estimated at up to £130 million.
Turnbull is a diehard neoliberal. He declared that he supported “unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the budget” last year.
As a minister he presided over cuts at Australia Post that will see 1,900 jobs slashed.
He presents himself as capable of driving through a new wave of attacks through convincing the public of the “case for change” where Abbott failed. Business leaders were reportedly “ecstatic” at news of his takeover.
The new prime minister has a reputation as more moderate than Abbott, supporting same-sex marriage and action on climate change.
He lost his job as opposition leader after agreeing to negotiate with the former government on the design of a carbon trading scheme. This triggered a rebellion in Tory ranks, where climate change denial runs rife.
But Turnbull, anxious to appease the right wing of his party and hold onto the leadership, has already ruled out any significant changes since becoming leader.
He has agreed to stick with the outgoing prime minister’s plan for a referendum on same-sex marriage—designed to delay the decision as long as possible. There is also to be continued support for the government’s widely ridiculed climate plan.
He has a terrible record on refugees from his period as opposition leader. He declared that, “Only a Turnbull government can stop the boats and secure our borders.”
Australia got through the global economic crisis without a recession. But Labour and the Liberals have taken a battering after three decades of neoliberal policies.
The effort to push through “economic reform” has seen off a succession of prime ministers.
As the economy stutters due to the slowdown in China, there is pressure on the new prime minister from business to deliver new cuts and attack workers’ rights.
It will be up to the unions and the campaigns around refugees, same-sex marriage and climate change to ensure the new prime minister goes the way of the last one.