Australia's New PM: A Progressive Who Claims Jewish Roots

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Malcolm Turnbull laughs as he makes an address at Parliament after he was sworn in as prime minister in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015
Malcolm Turnbull laughs as he makes an address at Parliament after he was sworn in as prime minister in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015Credit: AP

The new Australian prime minister is a self-made multi-millionaire who has strong links with the business community, progressive views for his conservative party and a level of public popularity of which the man he toppled could only dream. 

He also says he has Jewish roots and has expressed a desire to increase ties with Israel.

Malcolm Turnbull, the former communications minister, was sworn in on Tuesday as Australia's fourth leader in two years, replacing Tony Abbott. Turnbull, 60, a former tech entrepreneur, merchant banker and lawyer, had long been viewed by the public as a preferred prime minister. 

Malcolm Turnbull (C) is sworn in by Australia's Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (R) as Australia's 29th Prime Minister at Government House in Canberra on September 15, 2015.Credit: AFP

On the surface, Turnbull has much in common with Abbott. Both are middle-aged white men who attended prestigious schools before becoming Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University. Both worked as political journalists for a time. 

A closer look shows marked differences, not the least of which are their positions on the political spectrum. 

Less known is Turnbull's Jewish roots and his position on Israel. Speaking to the Australian Jewish News back in 2013, Turnbull said that his “mother always used to say that her mother’s family was Jewish.”

“I grew up in the eastern suburbs and as we all observe there were a lot of Jews in the eastern suburbs and I have always been very comfortable [there]," he told the local paper in reference to his constituency of Wentworth in New South Wales that has a large Jewish population.

Though not a member of the community, Turnbull said he has always felt at home there: “There is no doubt that the strong traditions of family and the whole heimishe atmosphere of the Jewish community for me – as someone who is a good friend, but not part of it – I find very admirable.”

According to the Australian Jewish News, Turnbull addressed the Australian Zionist Federation's annual meeting last month and reiterated Australia’s support for Israel, saying that though the countries had “very good” ties, more could done.

 “We need to collaborate more with Israel, particularly on matters of science and technology. The more we can do with Israel, the better,” the local paper quoted him as saying.

Nonetheless, the former leader of the Liberal Party who was ousted by Abbott in opposition in 2009, Turnbull also has the handicap of wealth and perceived privilege. 

Abbott is a former boxer who set social media alight earlier this year when he chomped into a raw onion on a farm visit. Turnbull, in contrast, is admired by the urban elite. 

The opposition Labor Party was quick to paint the one-time partner at Goldman Sachs as a "slick merchant banker" who is out of touch with the general public. 

Outgoing Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.Credit: AP

Turnbull's riches were boosted by his involvement in internet service provider Ozemail, the first Australian tech company to list on the Nasdaq.

Labor lawmaker Jason Clare labelled him "a multi-millionaire who lives in a pink mansion on Sydney Harbour". The tabloid Northern Territory News trumpeted "Rich dude becomes PM" on its front page. 

Turnbull is expected to focus on his strong business credentials to turn the spotlight away from controversial issues like Abbott's tough refugee policies and back onto the faltering economy - and how to give it a jumpstart. 

"That's where the government has been really floundering," said Peter Chen, a senior lecturer in government at the University of Sydney. "He's talking a big game, whether he can pull it off is questionable." 

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