Australia will have a new prime minister in Scott Morrison – the socially conservative architect of Australia’s hardline anti-asylum seeker policies – after he mounted a late challenge during a drawn-out struggle for power in the governing Liberal party.
On Friday, incumbent Malcolm Turnbull failed in his attempt to stare down a challenge from hard right MP Peter Dutton, with insurgents in his party gathering enough signatures to call for a “spill” – or leadership contest.
That led to a three-way challenge that included Morrison, Turnbull’s treasurer, Dutton, the former home affairs minister, and Julie Bishop, the foreign minister. Turnbull himself stood aside from the contest.
Bishop was eliminated in the first round, and Morrison beat Dutton in a subsequent run-off, 45 votes to 40, suggesting the party is still deeply divided.
There appears no end in sight to the civil war consuming the ruling Liberal-led coalition government. The country may be headed to an election, with Turnbull saying he will not stay in parliament. His resignation in between general elections would erase the government’s single-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Australia has now had five prime ministers in just over five years. Since 2010, four prime ministers have lost office, not at the ballot box, but torn down by their own parties, earning Canberra the unhappy appellation “the coup capital of the Pacific”. In his first address as prime minister-elect, Morrison counselled unity for a riven party.
“Our job … is to ensure that we not only bring our party back together, which has been bruised and battered this week, but that will enable us to ensure we bring the parliament back together,” he said.
Morrison said his government intended to address, as its major priorities, Australia’s “economic and national security”. But he also nominated Australia’s long-running drought – 100% of the state of New South Wales is currently drought-affected – as a key issue. “This is our most urgent and pressing need right now.”
Morrison sought to downplay suggestions an early election was imminent. “We intend to be governing,” the incoming prime minister said. “I don’t think anybody should be making any plans for any elections any time soon.”
In his valedictory speech, Turnbull sounded a warning against the rising tide of populist anti-immigration political rhetoric, promoted from within his own party. “We are the most successful multicultural society in the world, and I have always defended that and advanced that as one of our greatest assets,” he said. “We must never allow the politics of race or division or of setting Australians against each other to become part of our political culture.”
Turnbull also made another thinly veiled swipe at actors “outside the parliament” undermining his leadership – widely interpreted as an attack on the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation newspapers and TV channels, which have consistently campaigned against him.
“There was a determined insurgency from a number of people both in the party room and backed by voices, powerful voices, in the media, really to bring – if not bring down the government – certainly bring down my prime ministership,” he said.
Morrison was treasurer in Turnbull’s administration, and before that, as immigration minister, he was behind Australia’s controversial hardline asylum-seeker policies – including indefinite detention on remote foreign islands.
The son of a policeman and an active member of a Sydney Pentecostal evangelical megachurch, Morrison wears his political ambition and his conservative credentials proudly.
He voted no in Australia’s plebiscite on same-sex marriage, listed “church” as one of his interests in his Who’s Who report, and regards former prime minister John Howard as his political inspiration.
Before his election to parliament in 2007 he was a factional kingpin in the rightwing of the New South Wales Liberal party.
Morrison’s first task as prime minister will be to promote rapprochement between the rival wings of his own party, a relationship that has grown increasingly toxic as Turnbull gave ground to conservative insurgents – especially over climate change and energy policy – only to be rewarded with more and more demands.
But there appears no immediate end to hostilities between the party’s “small l liberal” moderate wing and its hard-right conservative faction. After the leadership vote, conservative former prime minister Tony Abbott – himself ousted by Turnbull in 2015 – said: “We’ve lost a prime minister but we still have a government to save, that is what we will all do our best to do now.”
Turnbull, a wealthy former investment banker and lawyer, was publicly derided by some in his own party as “Mr Harbourside Mansion” over his home in the most expensive suburb in the country. He attracted the opprobrium of conservative party members for his outspoken support for same-sex marriage and promotion of action on climate change and the Paris emissions targets.
The Coalition government has faced persistently poor polling since 2016 and historically voters have tended to punish governments that change leaders mid-term.
The government also has a money problem. The opposition Labor party – allied to the union movement and other moneyed leftwing lobby groups – has amassed a massive war chest to fight the next election, not due until next year, but now likely much sooner.
The largest donor to the government last election – with the largest contribution in Australian political history of $1.75m – was Turnbull.
Facing challenge, Turnbull said this week he would resign immediately from parliament if he lost the prime ministership. On Friday, having been deposed, Turnbull promised to leave parliament “not before too long”.