Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s surprise election win last month was widely greeted as the nation’s “Trump moment” in light of his historically hard-line views on immigration and refugees.
Indeed, media reports played up US President Donald Trump’s “GREAT WIN” tweet and personal congratulatory call to Morrison in the wake of his election victory.
But while Morrison’s odds-beating triumph was tagged as yet another global example of the rise and rise of right-wing populism, there are signs the leader may stake out a more centrist position than many anticipate.
Dubbed by some commentators as the “messiah from the Shire”, reference to his strong Christian faith and southern Sydney electorate, Morrison is already seen as a political miracle maker by beating pollster odds of an assured Labor Party win and bringing his factionalized Liberal-National Coalition back together, at least for now.
On the campaign trail, the now defeated Labor Party opposition promised if elected a detailed program of economic and social reforms that entailed one of the most left-leaning platforms seen in years in Australian politics.
Those included significant income redistribution policies through tax reform, more state resources dedicated public health, broadcasting and education, and a stronger push for renewable energy use to combat climate change.
That made Labor an easy liberal target, which the conservative Morrison happily shot down while offering very little from the pedestal on his own policies.
In particular, Morrison was able to portray his side as a comparatively safe pair of hands for handling the economy, characterizing Labor as reckless big spenders and historically poor economic managers.
Much of the electoral backlash that sunk Labor came from the state of Queensland, where unemployment in some regions is double the national 5.2% average and economic hopes rest on the further development of the controversial coal industry.
The backlash was interpreted by some analysts as class struggle revenge exacted by an increasingly right-wing working class who oppose the liberal policies supported by higher income earners in rich urban areas such as Sydney and Melbourne.
While many saw Morrison’s victory as a distinct swing towards the political right, easily done in light of his past support for tough anti-immigration policies, the political reality is more complicated.
Morrison’s critics point to his tenure as immigration and border protection minister from 2013-15, where he spearheaded a militarized “turnback” policy that blocked boats of refugees most from the Middle East from landing on Australia’s shores.
They note that Morrison leveraged New Zealand’s mosque massacre, perpetrated earlier this year by a right-wing white supremacist Australian, to announce a 15% cut in annual migration intake because immigrants are supposedly congesting cities.
Yet Morrison has taken notably centrist positions on key personnel decisions since the election, indicating to some a path towards national reconciliation after one of the country’s most divisive elections in recent memory.
Others believe Morrison is trying to refashion his ruling Coalition into a Trump- inspired populist movement that appeals to a growing mass of discontented Australians who fear rather than embrace globalization.
To widen the Coalition’s base, he has at least initially opted against notorious right-wing personnel choices.
For instance, Morrison pointedly overlooked maverick former National Party leader and ex-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, known for his opposition to same-sex marriage and skepticism over climate change, when he announced his Cabinet.
In response to a backlash against his previous government’s environmental record, Morrison also dropped controversial and underperforming Environment Minister Melissa Price.
He also appointed the first indigenous person as Indigenous Affairs Minister in Ken Wyatt.
The previous Coalition government was roundly criticized for the lack of female representation, with only six women out of 32 ministers. Morrison has boosted their numbers with two new woman appointments.
For foreign affairs, Morrison appointed the respected and well-known moderate Arthur Sinodinos as Australia’s new ambassador to Washington, where it is already expected he will be less of a sycophant to Trump than incumbent Joe Hockey, known for playing golf with and heaping praise on the US leader.
Morrison’s relations with China will present more of a test, but last week’s docking of four Chinese warships at Sydney Harbor signaled the relationship is more familiar than fraught at a time Sino-American rivalry is spiking in the South China Sea.
As with previous leaders, Morrison faces the dilemma that on one hand China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and largest export market, while on the other it shares a longstanding security alliance with the US.
Like other regional countries, Australia under Morrison can be expected to resist pressure to take superpower sides as US-China tensions mount on security and trade fronts.
In all these areas, Morrison now has the authority and mandate to act as a leader elected at the ballot box rather than through parliamentary maneuver.
Then serving as national Treasurer, Morrison was a surprise, compromise candidate to replace his ousted predecessor Malcolm Turnbull last August. That meant Morrison had only six months to establish his leadership before going to the polls at a time his Coalition was tanking in opinion polls.
Having performed what many now see as an electoral “miracle” (his own words), and after campaigning largely single-handed, Morrison now has the undisputed authority to put his personal stamp on government.
In recent years, the ruling Liberal National Coalition has been riven by factional dissent between moderates and more hard-line conservatives, the latter of which disposed of Turnbull in a party room coup.
Much of the Coalition’s political efforts went to placating its so-called “conservative base”, who were presumably anti-same sex marriage, anti-renewable energy, anti-immigration and anti-China, among other right-leaning antagonisms.
While Morrison’s victory came as a surprise, he has so far disarmed his critics through his stated intent to govern for “middle Australia” and not just the narrow conservative faction that supported his candidacy.
In that middle path direction, he may also bid to co-opt some of Labor’s best and most popular policies, including a reboot of policies around renewable energy and a boost for cancer screening and treatment funding.
If any of this comes to pass, it would be a welcome change for an electorate exhausted by a decade of often destructive partisan politics which has significantly eroded Australians’ faith in the political class and integrity of government.
The main challenge now for Morrison is not a vengeful Labor opposition, which by all accounts has retired to lick its post-election wounds, but rather a fast-faltering economy.
The Reserve Bank of Australia cut official interest rates for the first time in three years to a record low of 1.25% this month – and there could be more cuts on the horizon as the central bank looks to stimulate the economy through monetary means.
The rate cut came in response to reports that gross domestic product (GDP) growth slowed to a decade low of just 0.4% in the first quarter against the backdrop of falling housing prices and rising unemployment.
If the decline continues, then Morrison could reach for fiscal measures traditionally associated more with the Labor Party than his Coalition in a bid to prevent what inevitably would be an unpopular recession after 28 consecutive years of economic expansion.