SYDNEY — Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was removed from power Friday by conservative elements of his own center-right Liberal Party unhappy with an attempt to set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s biggest coal exporter.
Turnbull, 63, was replaced by the country’s treasurer, Scott Morrison, a former tourism industry lobbyist behind Australia’s tough refugee policy that confined thousands of men, women and children to government-run centers in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nation of Nauru for years.
“It has been a challenging time to be prime minister, but I am very proud of our record of achievements,” Turnbull said after he was removed. “I have been a reforming Liberal prime minister.”
Morrison is the fourth prime minister in five years, a period of political instability that Australia has not experienced since the early 1900s. Analysts said the increasing polarization of political debate — a development seen in democracies around the world — had made governing harder for centrist leaders such as Turnbull.
So wealthy that he preferred his own home to the prime minister’s official residence on the other side of Sydney Harbor, Turnbull, a former Goldman Sachs partner, legalized same-sex marriage last year over the objections of many of his conservative colleagues.
In his first remarks as prime minister, Morrison said he’d pick a new cabinet over the weekend, and that an election due by May wouldn’t be held soon. He also vowed to bring down electricity prices and address drought-ridden areas of the country.
“It’s also important that we provide the stability of government, which we will be able to do,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday. “I think today what the party voted for, that stable choice, moving to a new generation. That means we’ll have a continuity but there will be points of emphasis and direction that we will be consulting our cabinet on.”
Morrison, who was sworn in Friday, has by his own admission always aspired to be leader and embraced each portfolio he’s been given on his way to the top, according to a Bloomberg News report. But in his role as a government attack dog, he’s sometimes left colleagues and the voting public cold.
“While we don’t know what sort of a leader he will be, Scott Morrison is a very good politician,” said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Brisbane’s Griffith University. “He’s good on policy, good on media, good in parliament, good in the Cabinet. He ticks all the boxes — except resonating well with voters. That’s usually a treasurer’s curse, so he needs to sell another side of himself now.”
The 50-year-old evangelical Christian has been a lawmaker since 2007. Since September 2015, he’s been the country’s treasurer, overseeing an economy that’s now gone 27 years without a recession. His seat is based in one of the country’s most socially conservative and least multicultural areas, and he has had a high profile since 2013, when he became a hard-line immigration minister who oversaw the offshore detention and processing of asylum seekers.
The Sydney Morning Herald described his political career in 2016 as being “pockmarked with overweening ambition, the use of others as steppingstones, and some glaring lapses of judgment.”
Friday’s vote was the second one on Turnbull’s leadership in three days and the culmination of years of what Turnbull asserted was an “insurgency” by opponents aided by right-wing commentators and media outlets, including Sky News, the Australian equivalent of Fox News.
“There was a determined insurgency by a number of people, both in the party room and backed by powerful voices in the media . . . to bring down my prime ministership,” he told reporters.
Turnbull wanted a plan to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to be enshrined in law as part of Australia’s agreement at the U.N. climate conference held in Paris in December 2015.
Members of his party who prefer coal power stations over subsidies for wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy threatened to vote against the plan in Parliament, triggering a political crisis that rapidly escalated into two leadership challenges.
Turnbull, who was prime minister for two years and 11 months, oversaw a strong economy with low interest rates, inflation and unemployment. He also secured an agreement with President Trump for some 1,250 Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani refugees who had tried to reach Australia by boat to be transferred to the United States, a major step forward for attempts to resolve Australia’s biggest international embarrassment.
“At the very least, the Turnbull government has been an average-to-good government, by most measures, brought down by internal divisions,” said John Warhurst, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
Morrison’s elevation was somewhat of a snub by the Liberal Party to Australian-born media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose influential tabloid newspapers had given sympathetic coverage to his main rival, Peter Dutton, whom Morrison defeated for the post in a 45-to-40 vote.
Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, a professional investor based in Singapore, hinted at the feelings inside the family toward Murdoch in a tweet that contained a link to a song by the Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
“Tough times @rupertmurdoch,” he wrote. “An ex of your wife wrote a great tune about times like this. I think it was played at a recent inauguration, can’t remember which.”
Rolling Stones songs were played at Trump’s inauguration concert, over the band’s objections. Jerry Hall, who had a longtime relationship with Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, married Murdoch in 2016.
The top editor of one of Murdoch’s most aggressive tabloids, the Daily Telegraph, denied that the paper had taken sides. “We also have a political editor who has fearlessly reported the news of what was actually happening in Canberra, when others in the [media] chose to ridicule or ignore what was happening,” Christopher Dore said in an email.
Morrison is likely to place a high value on Australia’s close military and diplomatic relationship with the United States, which Turnbull had maintained despite a difficult early telephone conversation in January 2017 with Trump, who complained that the refugee agreement he inherited from President Barack Obama was a “stupid deal.”
The new prime minister, who is often referred to by his nickname, ScoMo, said his first priority would be dealing with a drought that has hit large parts of New South Wales and Queensland states. He also promised to reverse increases in electricity prices, which are a sore point in a country with huge deposits of coal and gas, and pledged to protect the universal health-care system that is a source of pride for Australians.
“It comes back to those three things: keeping our economy strong, keeping Australians safe and keeping Australians together,” he told reporters.
In a country where the debate over climate change and clean energy has brought down several political leaders — including Turnbull — Morrison has been unequivocal in his support of Australia’s traditional power source.
He famously brought a lump of coal into parliament in February 2017. “This is coal,” Morrison shouted across the chamber. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you. Those opposite have an ideological, pathological fear of coal.”
Australian conservatives and anti-immigration political parties have been encouraged by Trump’s political success, and the move against Turnbull was driven in part by the Liberal Party’s desire for a leader who could attract voters on society’s fringe.
Turnbull plans to resign from Parliament soon. Given that the ruling government has a one-seat majority, his political retirement would trigger a special election in his Sydney district that could imperil the government.
Governing in a coalition with the rural-based National Party, the government has trailed the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls for several years.
A general election is due next year.
This report contains information from Bloomberg News.