Scott Morrison is not a man for understatement.
“We live in the most amazing country on earth,” the Australian prime minister declared in a New Year’s video message this week. “There’s no better place to raise kids anywhere on the planet.”
It hit a discordant note as apocalyptic scenes were emerging of children in face masks under blood-red skies, fleeing to beaches with their parents to escape the country’s raging bushfires. “You’re an idiot,” yelled a heckler as Mr Morrison toured a fire-ravaged town on Thursday in his home state of New South Wales, where long queues of drivers were battling to exit a vast “tourist leave zone” and authorities had declared a seven-day state of emergency.
Months of devastating fires, coupled with Mr Morrison’s ill-timed family holiday to Hawaii last month, have fanned attacks on the former tourism chief and his centre-right government’s reluctance to tackle climate change. A prime minister once affectionately known as “ScoMo” has acquired a less flattering nickname: “Scotty from marketing”.
Only eight months ago, the 51-year-old was being hailed as a political mastermind for snatching victory in an election he was widely expected to lose, in part because of his unwavering support for the country’s powerful coal industry.
“It’s important to keep in mind that Morrison is among the most popular Australian leaders in living memory,” says Jill Sheppard, a politics lecturer at the Australian National University.
The question is whether this adroit campaigner can navigate a fire crisis with little precedent and rising foreign policy challenges in a brutal political culture that has dispatched four prime ministers in the last seven years.
Described as canny rather than cerebral, and a tactician not a strategist, Mr Morrison is a convict descendant and policeman’s son who grew up in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Bronte, where a home sold last year for A$16.8m (£8.9m). Mr Morrison has said the place was less upmarket then and more like the home he later adopted in the suburbs further south, where he has been a voluble fan of the local rugby league team and a habitué of burger shops.
He started dating his future wife, Jenny, who he still reportedly talks to several times a day, when both were in their teens. The pair met through church, and as he revealed in his maiden speech to parliament, they spent years struggling to conceive before “God remembered her faithfulness” by blessing them with the first of two daughters.
Though he once said he did not regard the Bible as “a policy handbook”, Mr Morrison’s evangelical Christian faith makes him an outlier in a country unused to overt displays of religious conviction from its leaders.
After studying economic geography at university, he worked in property and tourism jobs before becoming director of the NSW Liberal party in 2000. He later ran the government’s Tourism Australia agency, achieving brief notoriety for a campaign to lure international visitors with the slogan, “Where the bloody hell are you?” Those words came to haunt him last month when he disappeared to Hawaii on a trip his office initially denied he had taken.
In 2007, after an unusually tumultuous preselection battle, Mr Morrison secured a seat in the federal parliament where his relentless energy and ambition led to a series of front bench jobs, and a polarising reputation. As immigration minister, he drove a contentious “stop the boats” policy of turning back asylum seekers with relish, later decorating his office with a model of an Asian fishing boat bearing the words: “I stopped these”. In 2017, when treasurer, he waved at a lump of coal on the floor of the parliament to mock critics he claimed were afraid of the fossil fuel.
His style did not always endear him to colleagues. In a recent book, Niki Savva, a senior adviser to former Liberal party prime minister, John Howard, describes a group of top Liberals musing about future party leaders at a 2018 lunch where one minister dismissed Mr Morrison as an “absolute arsehole”.
Nonetheless, by August 2018, Mr Morrison had replaced the ousted Malcolm Turnbull to become the third Liberal prime minister in three years. His victory in May’s election vindicated the party’s choice. But his political instincts, which he admits are more domestic than international, may soon face a steeper test.
He inherited a record-setting economy that has delivered nearly 30 years of uninterrupted growth buoyed by trade with China, a rising rival to Australia’s historic strategic ally, the US.
“In some respects, Australia is the canary in the coal mine of a decoupling world, being historically, culturally and militarily tied to the US but increasingly part of an emerging Asian economic empire led by China,” says Richard McGregor, a senior fellow for China at the Lowy Institute think-tank in Sydney.
Mr Morrison has played a steady hand so far, refraining from harsh criticism of China while attending a White House state dinner with US president, Donald Trump in September.
For now, his greatest challenge lies at home, where his performance during the bushfires is raising doubts about whether his campaign skills will translate into effective governing.
“If you give him a script and a mission — stop the boats, win the election — he is unstoppable,” says Ms Savva. “But when he has to respond spontaneously, he falters. He has been prime minister now for nearly 18 months. He should be doing better.”
The writer is an FT columnist