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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Australia's ‘accidental PM’ made his name by turning back refugees

The social conservative, Pentecostal prime minister replaced the ousted Malcolm Turnbull in a secret ballot Friday

epaselect epa06967830 Then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison speak to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, 22 August 2018 (issued 24 August 2018). Scott Morrison is Australia's new prime minister after winning a liberal party vote for leadership. EPA/LUKAS COCH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
epaselect epa06967830 Then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison speak to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, 22 August 2018 (issued 24 August 2018). Scott Morrison is Australia's new prime minister after winning a liberal party vote for leadership. EPA/LUKAS COCH AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

Australia’s Scott Morrison, the man dubbed the accidental prime minister, is an incongruous mix of committed Christian who made his name though ratcheting up a hostile refugee policy that many church groups have condemned as inhumane.

The 50-year-old was, until Friday, the government treasurer. But then the ruling Liberal Party responded to public discontent at the government by ejecting centrist prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and electing Mr Morrison.

While he defeated a far right-wing populist, he’s still a more conservative figure than Mr Turnbull.

Some also find Mr Morrison’s politics confusing — he started his career as a moderate in the ruling conservative Liberal Party and morphed into a conservative. But as a conservative who respects moderates, Mr Morrison is well placed to heal the civil war within the party that brought him to power.

As treasurer, he held the most coveted government office after the prime minister and was regarded as the best economic manager among the candidates.

He had told colleagues that he would not run for party leader against Mr Turnbull. So his predecessor’s decision to quit meant Mr Morrison could not be accused of disloyalty.

Mr Turnbull revealed later that he was impressed by his party's pick, describing Mr Morrison as "a very loyal and effective treasurer."

But the new prime minister’s tough stance on asylum seekers bewilders some observers, given his devout Christian beliefs.

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Mr Morrison rose to public prominence when the conservative coalition government was first elected under Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 as the minister who stopped asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australian shores by boat.

Australia uses the navy to turn boats back to Indonesia, or banishes refugees to remote immigration camps on the poor Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The policy has been widely condemned as a callous abrogation of Australia's international obligations to help refugees.

Australia's human rights watchdog found in 2014 that Mr Morrison failed to act in the best interests of asylum seeker children in detention.

Mr Morrison explained his deep belief in the righteousness of crushing the people-smuggling trade and preserving the safety of people who board rickety boats to take the long and treacherous voyage to Australia.

But his empathy came under question when he criticized a former government's decision in 2010 to pay for asylum seekers to fly from a remote Christmas Island camp to Sydney to attend funerals after 48 died in a boat disaster.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 24: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison poses with his wife Jenny Morrison after being sworn in by Australia's Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove as Australia's 30th Prime Minister at Government House on August 24, 2018 in Canberra, Australia. Former Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison won the Liberal party leadership spill against Peter Dutton 45-40 today, securing himself as the 30th Prime Minister of Australia. Morrison is the sixth Prime Minister of Australia in 11 years. (Photo by Martin Ollman/Getty Images)
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison poses with his wife Jenny Morrison and two daughters after being sworn in by Australia's Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Getty

The former tourism marketer, known to his colleagues as "ScoMo," is also passionate about his Sydney Pentecostal church and his local Rugby League football team, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

"The only tip I've got is Sharks to beat Newcastle," Mr Morrison told reporters, referring to a weekend match, as he entered the room where his colleagues elected him their leader in a secret ballot on Friday.

Mr Morrison has a reputation as a powerbroker within the Liberal Party whose support has been crucial to previous party leaders.

Before politics, he made a splash as managing director of Tourism Australia in 2006, when he approved a 180 million Australian dollar (Dh 477.5 million) advertising campaign to attract visitors Down Under with a bikini-clad model on an Aussie beach who asked: "So where the bloody hell are you?"

The campaign was temporarily banned in Britain because of complaints about the choice of language.

But Australia's first Pentecostal prime minister is still a staunch social conservative.

He proved out of step with most Australians last year when he unsuccessfully campaigned against Australia legislating to allow gay marriage. The same-sex marriage was overwhelmingly endorsed in a government-commissioned postal survey.

In his first speech to Parliament in 2007, he discussed his faith and quoted the Bible at length.

But Australia’s regular party-room knifings and snap elections leaves the country looking similar to Italy - no prime minister has served a full term in a decade. That has curbed their willingness to enact bold, and potentially painful, policies to modernize Australia's commodity-dependent economy.

Lawmakers say they are acting for the public on leaders they dislike, and Mr Morrison has promised stability. Voters will get their say at an election expected by May. But the latest bloodletting, which pushed Australia’s dollar to a more than two-year low, simply reinforces the view that in Canberra, politicians act only for themselves.

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