Scott Morrison, a Pragmatic Conservative, Will Be Australia’s New Prime Minister
August 24, 2018
A relative moderate in Australia’s conservative party and an ally of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is poised to succeed him after a vote on Friday that capped days of chaos in the capital and underscored just how turbulent Australian politics have become.
Scott Morrison, who has been serving as the country’s treasurer, is set to become the sixth prime minister in 11 years after defeating Peter Dutton, a former home affairs minister, and Julie Bishop, the country’s foreign minister.
His deputy will be Josh Frydenberg, who had been energy minister under Mr. Turnbull.
The vote was the second challenge this week to the leadership of Mr. Turnbull — who himself assumed office by leading a party revolt in 2015.
But Mr. Morrison, 50, did not initiate the challenge. Rather, he backed Mr. Turnbull earlier in the week, then emerged as a more unifying alternative to Peter Dutton, a former home affairs minister known for his hard-line stance on immigration.
Mr. Dutton mounted the earlier, unsuccessful leadership challenge on Tuesday. After a week of turbulence that he ignited, he sought Friday to bolster the now-damaged Liberal Party as it moves closer to a general election expected in the coming months.
“My course from here is to provide absolute loyalty to Scott Morrison to make sure we win the election,” he said.
For Mr. Turnbull, the end came quickly. After months of negotiations, a rift within the party escalated last weekend over an energy proposal from the prime minister, which was meant to reduce electricity prices and address climate change by cutting emissions.
Mr. Dutton rallied the party’s conservative wing against him, only to fail when the votes were counted.
[Read more: Does addressing climate change equal political suicide in Australia?]
Experts said it was still not clear whether Mr. Morrison would tilt toward conservatives or party moderates.
Jill Sheppard, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University in Canberra, the capital, said Mr. Morrison was among the most conservative members of the Liberals’ moderate wing. “He has managed to straddle factions in the Liberal Party really nicely in the last couple of decades,” she said.
Other analysts said the fact that Mr. Morrison was regarded as a moderate only showed how dramatically conservative politics have shifted to the right in Australia.
“It’s just extraordinary that Scott Morrison is the moderate candidate,” said Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University. “He is an extremely conservative, law-and-order person.”
Like Mr. Dutton, Mr. Morrison rose to prominence over his tough stance on immigration. After a boat carrying dozens of asylum seekers sank in 2011, Mr. Morrison courted outrage by calling it a waste of taxpayer money for the Australian government to help pay for relatives to attend funerals.
“Any other Australian who wanted to attend a funeral of someone who died in tragic circumstances would have to put their hand in their own pocket,” he said.
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In 2013, he became minister of immigration and border protection under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In that post, he worked aggressively to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat, continuing the country’s contentious zero-tolerance policy toward such migration. One of Australia’s tactics, offshore detention, has been roundly condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations.
Mr. Morrison became treasurer in 2015, after a brief stint as minister of social services. Faced with a revenue shortfall, he preferred cutting spending to raising taxes, analysts said.
“That’s a straight-down-the-line conservative approach.” said Richard Holden, a professor of economics at the University of New South Wales. “He’s been O.K. in a difficult set of circumstances without showing real vision.”
Professor Sheppard said Mr. Morrison was unlikely to be a visionary leader. “He won’t probably set out any kind of expansive view for Australia,” she said.
An observant Pentecostal Christian and the son of a police officer, Mr. Morrison grew up in a beachside suburb of Sydney. Before being elected to Parliament in 2007, he oversaw tourism campaigns, including a contentious one for Australia with the slogan “Where the bloody hell are you?” It was banned from British television.
Not a single Australian prime minister has completed his or her full term in more than a decade. The frequent upheavals, experts said, have left foreign allies uncertain and voters angry when elected leaders are ousted in back-room coups. And compared to previous “spills,” as they are known, this week’s contest was especially messy and unpredictable.
“The leadership churn is unprecedented. No prime minister since John Howard, who lost office in 2007, has served a full term in office,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. “Governments seem incapable of exercising their authority. They spend most of their time in survival mode.”
For his part, Mr. Turnbull suggested that he would resign from Parliament if he were deposed. If he follows through, his vacant seat would be contested in a special election that could threaten the Liberal Party’s majority in Parliament when it reconvenes Sept. 10.
“The public hate what is going on at the moment,” Mr. Turnbull said, referring to Australia’s frequent leadership changes. “They want everyone here to be focused on them.”