CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull often says.
His upbeat and widely parodied catchphrase describes the unprecedented pace of change driven by technology that threatens many Australian jobs while creating new opportunities for innovators. But polls show that many Australians feel more scared than excited, especially as thousands of mining jobs are shed by the Chinese industrial slowdown and the Australian economy searches for growth outside its resource sector.
The center-left opposition Labor party uses it as evidence that the 61-year-old former Goldman Sachs partner who is worth an estimated $150 million ($110 million) is out of touch with most Australians.
Labor accused Turnbull of underfunding public hospitals and schools that he has never personally needed.
Turnbull, a centrist, took over the reins of power in September from the polarizing Tony Abbott, whose socially conservative stance on many issues had grown unpopular. His removal gave the conservative coalition government an immediate but short-lived bounce in the polls.
Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin, now a media commentator, says the public view Turnbull as an elitist “Mr. Harborside Mansion.”
The ruling Liberal Party conceded their leader has an image problem in proudly egalitarian Australia by releasing a television advertisement midway through the eight-week election campaign that focused on his childhood deprivations.
Turnbull was raised in Sydney by his hotel broker father Bruce Turnbull after his mother left when he was 9.
“He didn’t have much money, but he worked hard and sacrificed so that I could go to school and achieve what he couldn’t,” Turnbull wrote in a statement accompanying the campaign ad.
But Bruce Turnbull sent his only child to Sydney’s most exclusive boarding school and amassed a multi-million dollar real estate portfolio by the time he died in a plane crash in 1982 at age 56.
Turnbull has not lived up to expectations of more progressive policies since he became prime minister.
He has been hamstrung by promises he made to the party’s conservative members to ensure their support when he challenged Abbott. He agreed to maintain the government’s opposition to gay marriage and to a carbon tax on companies — even though he had previously clashed with right-wing elements in the party on these policies.
“Malcolm Turnbull has completed his transformation from the progressive firebrand to ambassador for the conservative brand,” The Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher wrote this week of a campaign rally.
The government’s re-election would give Turnbull a mandate from the people rather than his party colleagues, allowing him to have new authority to shape government policy.
Turnbull has long battled a public perception that his wealth puts him out of touch with ordinary folk. His nickname is “the Silvertail,” a pejorative Australian term for the privileged elite, and cartoonists often depict him wearing a top hat. Trying to counter this image, he has cultivated a reputation for traveling by trains and buses in cities around Australia, frequently using social media to share his public transport experiences.
He studied law at the University of Sydney before attending Brasenose College, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar.
Turnbull became a household name in Australia as a lawyer in the 1980s when he succeeded in blocking a British government attempt to prevent the Australian publication of “Spycatcher,” a memoir by former British intelligence officer Peter Wright.
He also worked as a journalist, investment banker and venture capitalist before he was elected to Parliament in 2004 to represent the Sydney electoral division of Wentworth, the wealthiest in Australia. Turnbull was the richest member of Parliament until mining magnate Clive Palmer was elected in 2013.
He led the Australian Republican Movement, which argues for severing Australia’s constitutional ties with Britain and appointing an Australian citizen as president. The status quo was maintained in a 1999 referendum, and Turnbull’s occasionally abrasive style was blamed by some as contributing to its failure.