'Accidental Prime Minister' has short run-up to Aussie vote

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Scott Morrison was labeled the "Accidental Prime Minister" when he was thrust to the top of a bitterly divided Australian government facing likely defeat in elections only months away.

Since he was elected prime minister in a leadership ballot of colleagues in his conservative Liberal Party on Aug. 24, 2018, Morrison has taken as much time as he had available to repair the government and define his leadership before facing the voters.

The government's fortunes have gone downhill since then, losing two lawmakers and with them its single-seat majority in Parliament as part of the blood-letting that has followed the ouster of Morrison's predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

Opinion polls suggest the center-left Labor Party will win the government.

There is a sense that Morrison has been able to separate himself from public anger at the revolving door of Australian politics. Turnbull became the fourth prime minister dumped by his or her own party since 2010 in an extraordinary period of political instability.

Morrison remained publicly loyal to Turnbull. He was dubbed the "Accidental Prime Minister" because he said he had no plans to nominate for the leadership ballot until the day before Turnbull declared he would not recontest his job.

But given Morrison's stated reluctance to take Australia's top political job, many Australians who voted for a Turnbull-led government in the last election have been left wondering why there needed to be a change of prime minister.

Turnbull was replaced after four chaotic days of feuding between hard-right conservatives and moderates within the government. Turnbull was a moderate who supported gay marriage and tough action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He was viewed with suspicion by the right and was made vulnerable by his government's poor performance in opinion polls.

Morrison's politics are more complicated. He is seen by some as an incongruous mix of a committed Christian who made his name through ratcheting up a refugee policy that many church groups have condemned as inhumane.

Some also find his politics confusing. He started his career as a Liberal Party moderate before morphing into a conservative. But as a conservative who respects moderates, Morrison is well placed to heal the civil war within the party that brought him to power.

Morrison rose to public prominence when the conservative coalition government was first elected under Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 as the minister who stopped asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australian shores by boat.

Australia uses the Navy to turn boats back to Indonesia, or it banishes refugees to remote immigration camps in the poor Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The policy has been widely condemned as a callous abrogation of Australia's international obligations to help refugees. Australia's human rights watchdog found in 2014 that Morrison failed to act in the best interests of asylum seeker children in detention.

Morrison explained his deep belief in the righteousness of crushing the people-smuggling trade and preserving the safety of people who board rickety boats to take the long and treacherous voyage to Australia.

But his empathy came under question when he criticized a former government's decision in 2010 to pay for asylum seekers to fly from a remote Christmas Island camp to Sydney to attend funerals after 48 died in a boat disaster.

Morrison has removed some of the political risk from the policy by removing children from Nauru. The last children left Nauru with their families in December to make new homes in the United States. President Donald Trump agreed early in his presidency that the U.S. would accept up to 1,250 refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru after "extreme vetting."

But Morrison remains proud of the refugee policy. He has a trophy shaped like a people-smuggler's boat in his office inscribed with "I Stopped These."

The 50-year-old former tourism marketer, known to his colleagues as "ScoMo," sells himself as an ordinary Australian family man who is passionate about his Sydney Pentecostal church and his local Rugby League football team, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

But Australia's first Pentecostal prime minister is staunch social conservative.

He proved out of step with most Australians in 2017 when he unsuccessfully campaigned against Australia legislating to allow gay marriage. The same-sex marriage proposal was overwhelming endorsed in a government-commissioned postal survey.

Morrison and his rival in the next election, Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition, were both first elected to Parliament in 2007, when conservative Prime Minister John Howard's rule ended after more than 11 years — the second-longest reign in Australian history.

"So what values do I derive from my faith?" Morrison asked in his first speech to Parliament. "My answer comes from Jeremiah, Chapter 9:24: I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord."

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