SYDNEY—Conservative lawmaker Scott Morrison unseated Malcolm Turnbull in a party rebellion to become Australia’s prime minister, marking a rightward shift for the ruling coalition as it grapples with the rise of fringe parties akin to those that have realigned politics in the U.S. and Europe.
Mr. Morrison, 50 years old, seized the leadership of the Liberal Party—the country’s main conservative bloc—in a ballot of its lawmakers Friday, after voter surveys suggested the government was headed for defeat in elections due next year.
Mr. Turnbull, 63, stepped aside earlier in the day as it became clear that he had lost the support of the majority of his party. That ultimately pitted Mr. Morrison against Peter Dutton, 47, a hard-liner who had challenged Mr. Turnbull, and lost, on Tuesday.
It is the sixth time Australia has switched prime ministers in about a decade, rekindling concerns about the paralysis and infighting that have afflicted political life despite continued economic growth and prosperity. No leader in that period has survived a full term without being ousted by their party.
A former tourism executive from Sydney, Mr. Morrison is a Christian who has backed greater rights for religious groups. He is viewed as a compromise candidate capable of healing the divisions between the Liberal Party’s moderates and harder-line conservatives such as Mr. Dutton, who had voiced unease about Mr. Turnbull’s policies on climate change, immigration and same-sex marriage.
In a news conference on Friday, Mr. Morrison vowed to give the Australian people “stability and unity,” noting that neither he, nor his deputy and treasurer-designate, Josh Frydenberg, were among the coup’s plotters. He said the economy, national security and a devastating drought that threatens to dent growth are his key priorities.
Unlike the U.S.’s presidential system, Australian voters don’t directly choose their prime minister. They instead elect a party, whose members can pick their chief from their ranks and can replace a leader in office.
While the choice of Mr. Morrison could help arrest the drift of some traditional conservative voters toward hard-right and fringe candidates, the bitterness of the leadership dispute risks splintering the country’s main conservative force and alienating centrist voters. Australia has compulsory voting, making it crucial for parties to capture swing voters who typically determine election outcomes.
Mr. Turnbull, a millionaire former banker with progressive social views, found himself increasingly at odds with many people in the party he headed. The immediate catalyst for the rebellion was Mr. Turnbull’s attempts to mandate Australia’s emission-reduction targets under the Paris climate accord.
On Monday, Mr. Turnbull backed away from those efforts to try to save his job. A day later he saw off an initial challenge by Mr. Dutton, but the modest scale of that win fueled doubts about Mr. Turnbull’s ability to unify his party and claw back a deficit in the latest polls. But the result of Friday’s ballot was even closer, 45-40, suggesting divisions remain.
The tough-talking Mr. Morrison, who until Friday was the country’s treasurer, has a reputation for solving political problems. In a previous stint as immigration minister he oversaw a contentious sea blockade in which the navy and paramilitary border guards were ordered to tow away boats carrying asylum seekers and, according to Indonesian police, pay people-smugglers to turn refugee boats around.
As welfare minister under Tony Abbott, whom Mr. Turnbull replaced as prime minister in 2015, Mr. Morrison’s job was to find ways to cut spending on pensions and unemployment benefits.
As treasurer, he attempted to push corporate tax cuts through a restive Senate. He succeeded in legislating tax cuts for small and medium-size businesses, though the party lost a key battle Wednesday when the Senate voted against lowering taxes for large companies.
Australia is enjoying a 27-year run of economic growth, but stagnant wage growth, inflationary pressures, job losses and a backlash against globalization have stoked voter unease. A property boom has fueled concerns about affordability, while household debt relative to income is among the world’s highest.
Like mainstream conservatives elsewhere, Australian politicians have grappled with the increasing popularity of fringe parties and how far rightward to steer in response.
Still, some conservatives worried that Mr. Dutton, a former policeman with hawkish views on immigration, would shift the party too far from the center. As minister for home affairs, Mr. Dutton oversaw a hard-line stance on asylum seekers and recently blamed African migrants for committing crimes.
John Hewson, a former Liberal leader, described the bid to install Mr. Dutton as a “race to the bottom” in a bid to avoid losing voters to upstarts such as the One Nation party of Pauline Hanson, a controversial, right-wing firebrand.
Even under the more moderate Mr. Morrison, the leadership coup is a gamble. Australians tend to take a dim view of their elected officials’ backroom plotting and revolving-door politics. In 2013 voters punished the then-Labor government for a prolonged leadership vendetta in which the party ousted a leader only to restore him as prime minister before an election Labor ultimately lost.
Peter Miklos, a taxi driver from Saunders Beach, near the tropical city of Townsville, said people had lost confidence in the country’s political leadership.
“All they do is fight. I just go to the beach and try to forget it,” he said.
—Rob Taylor in Townsville, Australia, contributed to this article.
Write to Rachel Pannett at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 24, 2018, print edition as ‘Australia’s Treasurer To Succeed Turnbull.’
Autralia economy news