Australian PM Scott Morrison: The Artful Dodger

Scott Morrison emerged as Australia's prime minister in August 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (AFP) - Evangelical Christian Scott Morrison's first years as Australian prime minister were defined by disasters on a biblical scale: the Black Summer bushfires, the Covid-19 pandemic and record floods in early 2022.

The looming May 21 election has increasingly been framed as a referendum on Morrison's leadership during these crises, with detractors accusing him of going missing when disaster strikes.

For them, Morrison's answer when questioned about holidaying in Hawaii while the 2019 bushfires tore through 24 million ha has become a refrain: "I don't hold a hose, mate." Meanwhile, his supporters argue no one could have better managed the trials that have battered Australia since he came to power.

Morrison, 54, emerged as Australia's prime minister in August 2018, the unexpected victor of a leadership spill in his conservative Liberal party.

He was not the most high-profile contender, perhaps best known to the public then as the treasurer who brought a lump of coal into parliament, waving it about as he told his fellow politicians: "This is coal. Don't be afraid."

After becoming Australia's seventh prime minister in 11 years, Morrison billed himself as "ScoMo", a suburban dad whose great loves were cooking curry and his rugby league team, the Cronulla Sharks.

Political columnist Sean Kelly, who published a biography of Morrison in 2021, told AFP this persona only began to emerge in 2015, when Morrison's ambitions for the top job also came into view.

Before that, he was "essentially a blank slate".

Morrison entered parliament in 2007 representing the Sydney seat of Cook, the site of Australia's last race riots.

As immigration minister in 2013 to 2014, he took credit for "stop the boats" - a harsh policy to prevent asylum seekers from entering Australia, which was widely condemned while eliminating sea-borne arrivals.

Critics questioned how the man in charge reconciled his worn-on-the-sleeve Pentecostal faith with his uncompromising immigration stance.

The Artful Dodger

Growing up in the wealthy Sydney beachside suburb of Bronte, the church and politics shaped Morrison's young life.

He would often help his father, a policeman who became the local mayor, with campaigns, and "enjoyed the theatre" of politics, according to Kelly.

The Morrison family also turned its hand to amateur theatre, with father and son performing in a production of the musical "Oliver!" The elder played Fagin, while young Morrison was cast as the Artful Dodger.

As a teenager, Morrison met his wife Jenny through the church, and the pair married when he was 21.

During his time as prime minister he has often faced criticism for appearing inauthentic, earning the nickname "Scotty from Marketing", a nod to his time in that industry before entering politics.

But Kelly said that "the two things he is absolutely sincere about are his faith and his love for his family".

"I think those two elements are the most important things in Scott Morrison's life," he said.

Trials and tribulations

Less than six months after Morrison won the 2019 election - promising to bring Australia's budget back to surplus and cut personal income taxes - the country began to burn.

The defining image of Australia's 2019 "Black Summer" came when Morrison visited a bushfire-ravaged town and tried to shake the hand of an exhausted local firefighter.

"I don't really want to shake your hand," the man told him - but the prime minister picked up his limp hand anyway.

Before recovery from the fires could even begin, the pandemic struck.

The fiscally conservative Morrison surprised many by pouring nearly A$90 billion (S$88 billion) into wage subsidies, as well as boosting unemployment benefits.

Australia is considered a Covid-19 success story, recording fewer than 8,000 deaths from the virus and a 95 per cent double vaccination rate.

This did not translate to support for Morrison, who was criticised for moving too slowly to secure vaccines and self-testing kits.

Similarly, the prime minister's handling of a series of sexual harassment and assault allegations against members of his party in 2021 sparked anger, particularly among women.

Morrison was able to hold together his broad coalition government while pushing through a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050 - but not quickly enough to satisfy many urban voters, who have abandoned the Liberals for climate-focused independents.

Heading into the election, though, his economic credentials have been burnished by Australia's unemployment rate dropping to 3.95 per cent, the lowest in half a century.

Morrison has also promoted his foreign policy credentials on the campaign trail, pointing to the signing of the AUKUS security pact with the United States and United Kingdom, which will see Australia acquire nuclear submarine technology.

He has heralded the deal as a foreign policy win, despite the fallout it generated with ally France.

The final polls before election day are tight, with most showing the opposition Labor party slightly ahead.

But Morrison has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat before, winning the 2019 election despite predictions of a landslide against him.

"I've always believed in miracles," he told supporters then.

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