Australia drafts ruthless Mr Fix-it to tackle budget as economy slows

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 20, 2015 2:57 AM

By Jane Wardell

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's new treasurer is a ruthless "Mr Fix-it" with a record of being parachuted into troubled portfolios.

Scott Morrison, who was tapped on Sunday to replace the ousted Joe Hockey, spearheaded Australia's controversial asylum seeker policy before shepherding unpopular pension reforms through the Senate.

The 47-year-old has shifted to the right along with his Liberal Party since entering politics as a moderate eight years ago, when he used his maiden speech in parliament to call for aid for Africa, quoting Bono, Desmond Tutu and William Wilberforce.

His appointment as part of a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle is likely go some way to appeasing party critics of the more moderate new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

It may also please a business community frustrated with a lack of policy direction as it struggles with the end of a once-in-a-century mining boom and a slowdown in top trading partner China.

Political analysts expect Morrison to translate his penchant for defined and measurable goals to the public purse at a time the budget deficit is forecast to blow out to A$35 billion ($25.2 billion) in 2015/16, double the initial estimate.

"There are two important things to say about Morrison. First, he does the work. He knows his brief. Second, you get the feeling that he is listening," said David Crosbie, the chief executive of the Community Council of Australia. "He's not necessarily committing, but he is listening."

Morrison came to prominence when, as opposition immigration spokesman in 2011, he criticized the government's decision to pay for relatives of the victims of the sinking of an asylum seeker boat to fly to Sydney for the funerals.

Political opponents and some within his own party condemned the comments, but he won support among right-wing shock jocks and a sizeable chunk of the Australian public amid rising concern about the numbers of asylum seekers.

TURNING BACK BOATS

When the Liberal Party rode that concern into office in a coalition with the smaller Nationals party last year, Morrison was given the high-profile immigration portfolio.

As the chief enforcer of the government's "Operation Sovereign Borders", Morrison intensified his hardline approach in the face of opposition from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights organizations.

He drew a veil of secrecy over the policy of intercepting and turning back asylum-seeker boats on the high seas, action that critics said breached international laws protecting refugees.

Some analysts have pointed out apparent contradictions between Morrison's job and his personal beliefs. The new Treasurer is a devout Christian Pentecostal, who worships with his family at a large church in Sydney.

Unlike the more progressive new prime minister who supports same-sex marriage, Morrison sided with the conservative Abbott on such issues.

Morrison himself says the bible shouldn't drive policy.

"I don't see what my faith has got to do with it," Morrison said in an abrasive radio interview this week. "You get to judge my policies but you don't get to judge my faith."

As immigration minister, he is famed for introducing new terminology into the Australian lexicon as he stonewalled questions about reports of asylum seeker boats being intercepted, citing confidential "on water" matters.

That terse way with words is likely to save him from gaffes made by his loquacious predecessor Hockey.

When Morrison became social services minister this year, the move was dubbed a shift in remit from "stop the boats" to "stop the bludgers", slang for people collecting state benefits rather than working.

All signs are that his next task will be "stop the deficit".

(Editing by Robert Birsel)