Scott Morrison was on Friday picked as Australia’s new prime minister after a Liberal Party coup in a stunning upset against key challenger Peter Dutton.
An ally of deposed leader Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Morrison, Australia’s former Treasurer, won a party-room ballot 45-40, ending an internecine battle that has scarred the conservative government ahead of an election due by May 2019.
Mr Morrison, who will be Australia’s sixth prime minister in less than 10 years, emerged victorious from a three-way race with Mr Dutton, the former home affairs minister, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
“My course from here is to provide absolute loyalty to Scott Morrison,” Mr Dutton, who was accused by Mr Turnbull of bullying and intimidation, said in brief comments afterwards.
Mr Turnbull, who called the second leadership meeting in a week after losing the majority support of the party, opted not to contest the vote. The ballot on whether or not to spill the leadership was narrower than expected, with 45 votes to 40.
Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, was selected as deputy Liberal leader, taking over from Ms Bishop , who was expected to resign from politics.
In a farewell press conference, Mr Turnbull said he was “very optimistic and positive about our nation’s future”.
“I want to thank the Australian people for the support they’ve given me and my government over the last nearly three years,” he said.
“We’ve been able to achieve as a progressive government, as a progressive Liberal coalition government, enormous reforms and very, very substantial achievements.”
Asked what Australians would think of the past week, he replied: “Australians will be just be dumbstruck and so appalled by the conduct of the last week. You know, to imagine that a government would be rocked by this sort of disloyalty and deliberate insurgency, is the best way to describe it, deliberate destructive action….”
Mr Turnbull also confirmed he would be leaving politics “not before too long”. When he resigns from parliament, he will leave the new government facing a by-election for his Sydney seat that could see it lose its one-seat majority.
The Liberal party is the senior partner in the ruling conservative coalition that will face an election by May 2019. The Liberal-National government has consistently trailed the opposition Labor party in opinion polls.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, an arch conservative widely seen as the instigator of the move to get rid of Mr Turnbull, said it was now important to “save the government” with national elections due by the middle of next year.
The prime minister narrowly defeated a leadership challenge from Mr Dutton on Tuesday, but had come under sustained pressure to call a second contest with the resignations of several prominent Cabinet figures.
Behind the scenes of the leadership battle between Mr Turnbull Mr Dutton, Mr Morrison was quietly canvassing support among his colleagues.
Morrison’s victory was welcomed by financial markets, which have been rocked by the political instability. Australian shares edged higher on Friday, rebounding after three days of losses that saw the benchmark fall 1.5 percent.
“PM Morrison is the most market-friendly option,” Annette Beacher, Chief Asia-Pac Macro Strategist at TD Securities in Singapore, told Reuters.
However, Ms Beacher said markets would be looking to see whether Morrison can narrow the gap with opposition Labour.
“The skew towards the Labor party at this stage ensures they will form government at the next election,” she said.
The hardline former immigration minister, who took credit for “stop the boats” – a harsh policy to prevent asylum-seekers from entering Australia at its sea ports – billed himself as a man of faith and family who could get things done.
The 50-year-old’s stealth candidacy reflected aspirations he has had since he entered parliament in 2007, representing the Sydney seat of Cook – the site of Australia’s last race riots.
The son of a policeman, Mr Morrison – known as “ScoMo” – becomes Australia’s seventh prime minister in 11 years, replacing a man who became the latest in a long line of leaders stabbed in the back by their allies.
His supporters point to his success with the immigration portfolio from 2013-14, where he implemented the controversial “Operation Sovereign Borders” to stop asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
They were either sent back to where they had come from or transferred to remote Pacific island camps.
The policy was credited with eliminating sea-borne arrivals.
But it also attracted fierce criticism, fuelled by Mr Morrison’s refusal to release details of the military operations to turn back boats, sometimes to countries with dodgy human rights records.
Conditions in the camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru were slammed by rights groups, with some asylum-seekers languishing there for years.
Mr Turnbull came to power in a party-room coup in September 2015. A social liberal and multi-millionaire former merchant banker, he has struggled to appeal to conservative voters and only narrowly won a general election in 2016.
The unrest is the latest chapter in a turbulent decade for Australian politics, with no leader managing to serve out a full term since former Prime Minister John Howard lost the 2007 election.