After beating Peter Dutton by 45 votes to 40, Morrison used his first news conference after securing the top job to present himself and Frydenberg as next-generation leadership, to apologise implicitly for the debacle of the past fortnight, and to send a message to voters that we are “on your side”.
The new prime minister was at pains to point out that neither he, nor Frydenberg, were active in the coup against Malcolm Turnbull – an attempt to separate them from their predecessors on both sides of politics who have torn down leaders in a catastrophic cycle of destruction in Australian politics over the past decade.
As well as attempting to reassure the voting public, Morrison also sent a message to Dutton, the leader of the coup, that he was prepared to accommodate him “playing a role in the government I intend to lead”. He also didn’t rule out returning Tony Abbott to the cabinet.
Dutton, while declaring he had “no regrets” about the events that cleaved the party in two and plunged the government into paralysis, reciprocated by telling reporters Morrison’s election to the leadership was “a healing point for the Liberal party”. He said it was now time to “start a new chapter”.
Mathias Cormann – another key figure in the conservative strike against Turnbull – also pledged on Friday to bury the hatchet, and help Morrison heal the internal divisions. Despite being one of the critical figures in unseating Turnbull, Cormann said he had no regrets, although he said he had “agonised” over the decision.
With much of the government still reeling after the events of the week, Morrison will be sworn in as prime minister on Friday night, and will deal with the Nationals and with a ministerial reshuffle over the coming weekend.
The Nationals leader Michael McCormack confirmed on Friday night the Nationals would have five cabinet positions, and the same level of ministerial representation, despite one of their number, Kevin Hogan, decamping to the cross bench as a consequence of the strike against Turnbull.
Hogan says he will sit on the cross bench, but is guaranteeing confidence and supply. He says he will continue to attend meetings of the Nationals party room.
The incoming prime minister faces several pressing challenges, including a looming byelection in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, which imperils the government’s one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. He will have to form relationships with the crossbenchers horrified by the move against Turnbull.
He will also need to work out which Turnbull policies to keep and which to dump – a question he avoided answering directly on Friday – as well as managing the internal dynamics of a riven party.
Morrison would not answer whether the national energy guarantee – the policy that was the catalyst for the leadership boilover – would remain government policy.
He also dodged a question about whether he intended to adjust current immigration levels, but signalled that while Australia needed to determine “who comes here”, it was not desirable to pit one group in society against another.
He said the job for him and Frydenberg was to ensure “that we not only bring our party back together, which has been bruised and battered this week” but also the parliament, and the country.
Morrison nominated dealing with the drought as his immediate policy priority. He said the government had to ensure “that we do what is necessary to help our regional communities, our farmers, and all those affected”.
Turnbull stepped down immediately following the leadership spill, and the former deputy leader, Julie Bishop, also lost her position when she ran for the top job on Friday. Bishop was eliminated in the first round of the ballot.
In his final news conference, flanked by his wife Lucy, daughter Daisy and his grandchildren, Turnbull said Australians “will just be dumbstruck and so appalled by the conduct of the last week”.
Taking aim at Dutton and Cormann – the two conservatives who were the praetorian guard for his prime ministership before they turned on him – Turnbull said his government had been rocked by disloyalty and “deliberate insurgency”.
Asked whether he had made too many concessions to his enemies during his tenure in office, Turnbull said he had learned from his experiences when he lost the Liberal party leadership in 2009. “That has meant that from time to time I have had to compromise and make concessions.
“It’s something I learned from my first time as leader that you have to work so hard to keep the show together. That’s the bottom line”.
He said this was a very difficult time to be in politics. “I think it has been a challenging time to be prime minister but I’m very proud of our record.
“I’m very proud of my government and my ministers’ record in achievement. I want to thank them. I want to thank all my colleagues.”
Turnbull, with his wife Lucy fighting back tears, ended his prime ministership by saying he remained “very optimistic and positive about our nation’s future”.
“I want to thank the Australian people for the support they’ve given me and my government over the last nearly three years,” he said.
with Paul Karp