Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull has been ousted as prime minister following a week of chaos in the capital, as the nation watched the ruling Liberal Party tear itself apart over ideological differences.
His replacement is former treasurer Scott Morrison, one of the architects of Australia’s tough immigration policy, who is now the country’s sixth prime minister in just over a decade.
The main challenger to Turnbull, former home affairs minister and factional conservative Peter Dutton, was defeated by Morrison 45 votes to 40 in a closed door leadership ballot shortly after midday local time, the party’s whip Nola Marino announced.
The Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, was elected deputy leader.
The events on Friday followed days of speculation and confusion over whether Turnbull could maintain his grip on the premiership in the face of a conservative uprising.
His position was thrown into doubt on Monday as a right wing faction in the party refused to support his climate change policy. Despite backpedaling on the bill, Turnbull found his leadership in crisis by Tuesday.
“There was a determined insurgency from a number of people both in the party room and backed by voices, powerful voices, in the media,” Turnbull said on Friday after the news of Morrison’s ascension was known.
The former prime minister attempted to delay the ballot as long as possible, imposing demands such as written evidence he had lost the support of his party, but in the end a vote was called for Friday.
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Morrison promised to “bring the Parliament back together.” “We’re an optimistic, we are a passionate, and we are an ambitious people, full of aspiration for ourselves, our families, and for our great nation,” he told reporters.
Party members belonging to the Liberals’ conservative faction had called for changes in the government’s policies, including greater investment in the country’s coal sector as well as policies to lower Australians’ electricity bills.
Dutton, a leader in the party’s conservative faction, stood against Turnbull for the leadership in a vote on Tuesday, losing 48 votes to 35, and all but guaranteeing a second vote.
But as momentum behind Dutton began to grow, Morrison put his hand up for the leadership too. His win surprised the nation, who’d been anticipating Dutton as its next PM, even as he dealt with questions over his eligibility to sit in parliament.
Morrison’s election to the top of the Liberal Party is only the latest succession in a revolving door of leadership changes in the Australian parliament in the past decade.
Since 2007, no Australia prime minister has faced two consecutive elections.
Turnbull warns of race politics
A self-proclaimed political moderate, Turnbull was always an uncomfortable fit within the right-of-center Liberal Party. He has been a longtime advocate for progressive social policies and action on climate change.
As the vote of no confidence appeared assured, Turnbull announced that he would step down and leave the parliament after the members cast their ballots, potentially costing the government its slender one-seat majority and leading to a by-election for his seat, or even a general election.
As Turnbull thanked his “loyal” colleague Scott Morrison, he issued a warning about attempts to drag Australia to the right.
“We must never allow the politics of race or division or of setting Australians against each other to become part of our political culture,” he said.
During his campaigning for the leadership earlier in the week, Dutton had spoken about concerns over immigration numbers in Australia, a common complaint among the Liberal Party’s right.
Morrison has not spoken recently about immigration in Australia and it is unknown if he will follow the conservative faction’s policy of cutting migration numbers.
Morrison was seen as a compromise candidate between Turnbull and Dutton – a political conservative but electable. Australia must have a federal election by May 2019 at the latest.
A committed Christian and at times controversial figure in Australia, Morrison was an enthusiastic advocate for the country’s strict border protection regime during his time as immigration minister.
Morrison’s assumption of Australia’s top job was welcomed by the conservative Australian Christian Lobby, who in a statement Friday said they hoped he would work to protect religious freedoms.
“Religious freedom must be a priority for the Morrison ministry in light of increasing numbers of Australians who are getting in trouble with the law for living out their faith,” the statement said.
Morrison will now have to work hard to regain the trust and enthusiasm of the Australian people after the week’s upheaval.
A poll published by ReachTEL on Thursday said only 8.6% of voters wanted to see him as prime minister compared to 38.1% who wanted Turnbull.