(Bloomberg) -- Scott Morrison, a proudly suburban, football-loving dad who revels in his nickname ScoMo, is a new conservative hero after leading his government to a surprise victory in Australia’s election campaign that relied heavily on his personal appeal.
Morrison, 51, tirelessly traversed the country, with a plain-speaking, blunt message: Trust me, not Labor’s Bill Shorten, to keep the economy growing. By winning the seemingly unwinnable election, he’s cemented his authority in a Liberal party riven by ideological differences, and may be the first prime minister to survive a full term in more than a decade.
“It’s unprecedented in modern Australian politics to see the prime minister become the solo spokesperson, and he conducted his orchestra beautifully,” said Haydon Manning, an associate professor of politics and public policy at Adelaide’s Flinders University. “Now he has an authority within his party” and has a chance to be around “for a long while.”
Former Treasurer Morrison is the Liberals’ third leader in four years and has only been at the helm since August. Factional infighting saw right-winger Tony Abbott dumped in 2015 by his own lawmakers for millionaire moderate Malcolm Turnbull, who in turn was ousted in a party vote.
Morrison, an evangelical Christian who represents one of the country’s most socially conservative districts, moved swiftly to unite the party and set about crafting a strategy to close down Labor’s long-standing lead in opinion polls.
He relentlessly attacked Shorten’s promise to boost the minimum wage, curb tax incentives for investors and take tougher action against global warming, insisting the slowing economy couldn’t risk such policies. While his reputation as an effective campaigner grew on the trail, polls still had him trailing by at least 2 points going into Saturday’s election, and book-makers had him at long odds to win as the ballot boxes closed.
As positive results rolled in on Saturday night, Liberal lawmaker Arthur Sinodinos, a former adviser to prime minister John Howard, lauded Morrison’s tactical prowess in mapping out the regions the coalition needed to concentrate on to win. “He thought there was a narrow path to victory and I think he’s operated on that basis ever since,” Sinodinos said.
Josh Frydenberg, the deputy Liberal leader and treasurer, was effusive in his praise on Sunday.
“The prime minister led from the front,” Frydenberg said. “He spoke and appealed to the aspirations of every Australian -- people who want to own their own home, people who want to run a business, people who want to save for retirement, people who want to raise a family.”
“Messiah from The Shire,” read the front page headline in the Australian newspaper Monday, referring to the region south of Sydney that Morrison represents. Most newspapers carried photos of a grinning prime minister, beer in hand, and waving to well-wishers from the terraces as he watched his beloved Cronulla Sharks rugby league team play yesterday.
With shirt-sleeves rolled up, and often wearing a baseball cap during the campaign, the father of two young daughters was as relaxed on camera as off -- and spoke with an easy-going charm. That affable persona is a remarkable turnaround from his hard-line image when as immigration minister in 2013 he oversaw the policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps.
The victory means Morrison is more likely to be recognized among his global peers.
Australia’s reputation for a high turnover of leaders produced an awkward moment in December at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires just months after Morrison came to power. In a meeting with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor appeared to rely on a briefing note with his portrait to remind herself of the new leader, while President Donald Trump reportedly quizzed him on why Turnbull was removed.
The U.S. president, a fellow conservative famous for his own unforeseen victory, is now a fan. “Congratulations to Scott on a GREAT WIN!” he tweeted after Morrison’s victory.
After receiving a rock-star reception from the party faithful late Saturday night, Morrison pledged to get straight back to work. His priority will be to legislate a six-year plan to cut income taxes and flatten tax brackets that were the centerpiece of his campaign. He must also put together a Cabinet, after a string of senior ministers retired from politics in the weeks leading up to the ballot -- seen then as a sign the coalition was destined to lose office.
After changing party rules last year to make it harder for lawmakers to topple their leader, he’s less likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessors. But Sinodinos warned that Morrison couldn’t take anything for granted, even after such an incredible come-from-behind win.
When asked whether he agreed that Morrison would enter the Liberal pantheon, Sinodinos responded: “That’s true, until your next contest. Because you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University, said time would tell how long Morrison’s “sheen within the Liberal party lasts.”
“I don’t know that they are quite as united as they appeared on Saturday night,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “This isn’t a team that is very strongly united on policies generally or on political strategy either,” she said. “He will face huge problems once this gloss wears off.”
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