After a brutal week of internal brawling in Australia’s parliamentary Liberal Party, the country now has its sixth Prime Minister in a decade. Former Treasurer Scott Morrison was elected to the top job after the Liberal Party dumped its leader, Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. Mr Turnbull was scathing of the plotters, calling their actions ‘appalling disloyalty’ whose ‘deliberate destructive action’ from within brought about his demise.
As Treasurer, the conservative Mr Morrison was loyal to the moderate Turnbull. He even supported Mr Turnbull when he deposed former Prime Minister (and fellow conservative), Tony Abbott just three years ago (an act some in Morrison’s conservative base mutter angrily about).
Mr Morrison had frequently been named as a future party leader or prime minister. Few (including him) thought it would happen this early – with a general election, the government appears destined to lose, due by May next year.
The vanquished Mr Turnbull was never popular within his conservative party. Today he named Tony Abbott and today’s unsuccessful leadership contender, former Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Peter Dutton, as those who ‘attacked the government from within to bring me and the government down.’
Mr Dutton fought hard to replace Mr Turnbull as Prime Minister. He almost got there. For most of this week, Mr Dutton was the only contender. However, when it was obvious Mr Turnbull had lost the confidence of his party, he encouraged his loyal Treasurer, Scott Morrison and equally loyal deputy, Julie Bishop to stand in today’s ballot against Dutton. This split Mr Dutton’s support and gave Mr Morrison the top job.
The new deputy leader is former Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg. A Victorian Conservative, he’s long been noted for his talent and ambition.
This latest battle was so merciless, it took three days to resolve. Malcolm Turnbull desperately battled the Abbott/Dutton ‘insurgency’ to hold on to his position, despite the resignation this week of at least ten of his ministers. On Tuesday, he was successful in Mr Dutton’s first challenge with a tight vote of support. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Three excruciating days of extraordinary and unruly aggression ensued. Still, today’s challenge was certainly considered necessary by the Party, with 40 of the 85 parliamentary Liberal party members voting against it. Morrison went on to defeat Dutton by five votes.
The Liberal Party’s division between its conservative and moderate factions has become cavernous. It might seem a paradox that the former Treasurer, Scott Morrison – the architect of Australia’s divisive ‘stop the boats’ refugee policy, a conservative Christian who did not support the recent (successful) same sex marriage plebiscite and subsequent legalisation that divided his party and some sections of Australia – got the top job on the back of the moderate faction support.
So where too now? Mr Turnbull said he will leave parliament ‘very soon’. This means a by-election in his blue ribbon seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s affluent and stylish eastern suburbs. It is not expected that Prime Minister Morrison will shun the capable Mr Dutton and force him to suffer the ignominy of the backbench.
Prime Minister in waiting Morrison says he will spend the weekend working out his new ministry. But given the damage this week has done electorally and within the parliamentary party, we would not expect too much change in portfolios. Deputy leader, Frydenberg, who holds honours degrees in economics and law, will be taking on Mr Morrison’s former treasury portfolio.
Not surprisingly the frustrated business community has been vocal in expressing disgust at the government’s behaviour and has been calling for certainty. The public is equally appalled.
So, Australia’s 30th Prime Minister, Scott Morrison will now draw on his conservative credentials to unite the Liberal Party and recast this shambolic government as it braces itself for another round of disastrous opinion polls, a by-election and a general election.
By Jacquelynne Willcox, Executive Vice President and Managing Director Powell Tate Australia