SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s next prime minister is a career public servant from Sydney’s southern suburbs who rose to prominence by stopping asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat and has steered the country’s fiscal direction for the past three years.
Scott Morrison, who has served as the country’s treasurer since 2015, represents the predominantly Anglo-Saxon electorate of Cook in Sydney’s south - a formerly blue-collar seaside suburban region now extensively gentrified.
Morrison won a Liberal party leadership vote on Friday - and with it the prime ministership - ending a skirmish for control of the party pursued by the government’s right wing.
He opened his first speech as prime minister-elect on Friday with a conciliatory tone, acknowledging the pressures felt by families, and the plight of the country’s drought-hit farmers.
Morrison, who has a reputation as an ambitious and accomplished politician, drew on the well-worn colloquialism “to have a go” to punctuate the address.
“If you have a go in this country you will get a go. There is a fair go for those who have a go,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
As a senior member of the government already heavily involved in high-level policy, economists don’t expect a Morrison-led government to abruptly shift direction ahead of a general election due by May 2019 at the latest.
“It won’t be a major change in policy just at the margin,” AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver told Reuters.
“What you might see is tax cuts occurring earlier. That might shore up support for the Liberals ahead of the election.”
Morrison’s most recent budget in May outlined plans to implement a package of personal income tax cuts over seven years, although the timeline could be sped up or unwound by future governments.
The Australian dollar rose one-quarter of a cent immediately after the results of the party vote were made public.
“PM Morrison is the most market-friendly option, having successfully negotiated through multiple portfolios such as Social Security, Border Security, and more recently presiding over a substantial improvement in the budget balance as Treasurer,” said Annette Beacher, Chief Asia-Pacific Macro Strategist at TD Securities in Singapore.
“ScoMo”, as he is nicknamed, forged his reputation in 2013 and 2014 by implementing the government’s signature immigration policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, which places asylum seekers who arrive by boat in offshore detention centres.
Despite this reputation, Morrison drew support from moderates in the party and defeated his more conservative colleague Peter Dutton in Friday’s vote. Dutton was responsible for asylum seeker policies until standing down this week over his role in unseating leader Malcolm Turnbull.
Morrison, reflecting many of the characteristics of his electorate, describes himself on his website as a “netball dad” to his two daughters and a member of a local Pentecostal church.
The 50-year-old has worked in the public service for several decades, holding senior government property and tourism jobs in Australia and New Zealand before becoming the state director of the Liberal Party in New South Wales in 2000.
Morrison became the managing director of Tourism Australia in 2004, approving the contentious ‘So Where the Bloody Hell are You?’ international advertising campaign, which was temporarily banned in the UK due to its crass language.
The uproar reached all the way to the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who quipped on a jet-lagged visit to Australia in 2006: “And here I am, in the Australian parliament building at what I think is something like four o’clock in the morning in the UK. And so I’m thinking, so where the bloody hell am I?’”
Though he did not enter federal politics until 2007, Morrison’s has been involved in political campaigning from age nine when he reportedly handed out how-to-vote cards for his father, who was a councillor and mayor in Waverley council, which includes Bondi Beach.
Morrison’s Sydney seat is considered safe, holding it by a large margin of 15.7 percent. But not all locals are happy about his promotion.
Bill Butterfield, a mechanic in Morrison’s electorate of Cook, told Reuters that Morrison was not conservative enough.
“I wouldn’t vote for him. I just don’t like the fella,” said Butterfield, who said he preferred the former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott.
“He’s done nothing for me. I don’t want him to be prime minister.”
In 2017, Morrison said he would vote “no” in the same-sex marriage postal vote.
He has repeatedly criticised renewable energy targets and has recently pursued greater restrictions on foreign ownership of sensitive assets, including electricity grids and agricultural land.
Morrison said on Friday that “the best form of welfare is a job”.
Nick Economou, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University in Melbourne, said the infighting in the Liberal party posed considerable problems to the new leader going into an election cycle.
“The bottom line is they’ve damaged themselves irreparably,” he told Reuters.
“It doesn’t matter what Morrison says or does now, I think that the coalition is on track for a big defeat at the next election.”
Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Erin Cooper in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast.