CANBERRA - Scott Morrison has carried an unusual burden for an Australian prime minister campaigning for election on Saturday. As well as explaining why Australians should vote for him, he’s also had to explain who he is to voters who have had little time to get to know their government’s leader.
The 51-year-old former tourism marketer was labeled the “Accidental Prime Minister” on Aug. 24, 2018, when he was thrust to the top of a bitterly divided government facing likely defeat in elections only months away.
Since he was elected prime minister in a leadership ballot of colleagues in his conservative Liberal Party, Morrison has taken as much time as he had available to repair the government and define his leadership before facing the voters who still question why there was a change of leader.
May 18 is the last possible date that Morrison could have realistically chosen to hold an election. But opinion polls suggest that his tenure as prime minister will be one of the shortest of the 30 who have served since 1901.
While Morrison is still not well known among Australians, he takes heart in polls that show he is preferred as prime minister to his rival, center-left Labor Party leader Bill Shorten.
The final days of campaigning were overshadowed by the death of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at his Sydney home on Thursday, which turned the national focus to the legacy of his Labor government whose anti-protectionist, free-trade reforms between 1983 and 1991 transformed the Australian economy.
The immensely popular 89-year-old had given his imprimatur to Shorten, who said Friday that Hawke had given him his “blessing” when they last met at Hawke’s home last week. “Bob was generous in his last remarks to me, and he said we were doing really well and he was very proud of me,” Shorten told Nine Network television.
Morrison on Friday described Hawke as Labor’s best prime minister, saying: “He was beyond politics. All Australians could connect with Bob Hawke.”
Inheriting an economy languishing in recession and with double-digit unemployment and inflation, Hawke embraced economic deregulation that belied his connections with Australia’s largest trade unions.
Hawke won support from the political left to float the Australian dollar, remove controls on foreign exchange and interest rates and lower tariffs on imports within months of his inauguration.
The reforms triggered a wave of economic growth, allowing Hawke to introduce universal health care, strengthen social security for poor families and enact stronger environmental legislation.
Hawke was Australia’s third-longest-serving prime minister and the longest-serving Labor prime minister. He was ousted by his own party during a recession in 1991, but the economic reforms he made are often cited as a major reason that Australia has not had a recession since.
The governing coalition’s official campaign launch this week was an extraordinarily personal presentation that focused squarely on the man who is seeking a third three-year term for his administration.
The launch included recorded interviews with Morrison family members that covered his wife Jenny’s diagnosis with endometriosis, their 14-year failed battle to conceive through IVF before having their two daughters naturally, and Jenny Morrison’s brother’s struggle with multiple sclerosis.
Morrison, a policeman’s son, also spoke of his modest upbringing in Sydney and of sharing a bedroom until he was in high school with an older brother who was studying at university.
“Life’s about what you contribute, not what you accumulate. That’s what mom and dad have taught me,” Morrison told the gathering of government ministers and supporters of his Liberal Party.
He was joined on the stage by his mother Marion Morrison, his wife and daughters Abbey, 11, and Lily, 9. He said his father John Morrison was “too frail” to attend.
The government’s fortunes have gone downhill since Morrison took the helm, losing two lawmakers and with them its single-seat majority in Parliament as part of the blood-letting that has followed the ouster of his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.
Opinion polls suggest Labor will win government despite public misgivings about its leader.
There is a sense that Morrison has been able to separate himself from public anger at the revolving door of Australian politics. But given his stated reluctance to take Australia’s top political job, many Australians who voted for a Turnbull-led government in the last election have been left wondering why there needed to be a change of prime minister.
Turnbull was replaced after four chaotic days of feuding between hard-right conservatives and moderates within the government. Turnbull was a moderate who supported gay marriage and tough action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He was viewed with suspicion by the right and was made vulnerable by his government’s poor performance in opinion polls.
Morrison’s politics are more complicated. He is seen by some as an incongruous mix of a committed Christian who made his name through ratcheting up a refugee policy that many church groups have condemned as inhumane.
Some also find his politics confusing. He started his career as a Liberal Party moderate before morphing into a conservative. But as a conservative who respects moderates, Morrison is well placed to heal the civil war within the party that brought him to power.
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 it banishes refugees to remote immigration camps in 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 Morrison failed to act in the best interests of asylum seeker children in detention.
Morrison explained his deep belief in the righteousness of crushing the people-smuggling trade and preserving the safety of people who are tempted to 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 island camp to Sydney to attend funerals after 48 died in a boat disaster.
Morrison has removed some of the political risk from the policy by removing children from Nauru. The last children left Nauru with their families in December to make new homes in the United States. President Donald Trump agreed early in his presidency that the U.S. would accept up to 1,250 refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru after “extreme vetting.”
But Morrison remains proud of the refugee policy. He has a trophy shaped like a people-smuggler’s boat in his office inscribed with “I Stopped These.”
Morrison, known to his colleagues as “ScoMo,” sells himself as an ordinary Australian family man who is passionate about his Sydney Pentecostal church and his local Rugby League football team, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
But Australia’s first Pentecostal prime minister is staunch social conservative.
He proved out of step with most Australians in 2017 when he unsuccessfully campaigned against Australia legislating to allow gay marriage. The same-sex marriage proposal was overwhelming endorsed in a government-commissioned postal survey.
Morrison and Shorten, who is a year and a one day older than the prime minister, were both first elected to Parliament in 2007, when conservative Prime Minister John Howard’s rule ended after more than 11 years — the second-longest reign in Australian history.
“So what values do I derive from my faith?” Morrison asked in his first speech to Parliament. “My answer comes from Jeremiah, Chapter 9:24: I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.”