SYDNEY – Scott Morrison, Australia's conservative prime minister, scored a surprise victory in federal elections Saturday, propelled by a populist wave — the "quiet Australians," he termed it — resembling the force that has upended politics in the United States, Britain and beyond.
The win stunned Australian election analysts — polls had pointed to a loss for Morrison's coalition for months. But in the end, the prime minister confounded expectations suggesting that the country was ready for a change in course after six years of tumultuous leadership under the conservative political coalition.
"I have always believed in miracles," Morrison said at his victory party in Sydney, adding, "Tonight is about every single Australian who depends on their government to put them first. And that is exactly what we are going to do."
The election had presented Australia, a vital U.S. ally, with a crucial question: Would it remain on a rightward path and stick with a political coalition that promised economic stability, jobs and cuts to immigration, or choose greater action on climate change and income inequality?
By granting Morrison his first full term, Australians signaled their reluctance to bet on a new leader, choosing to stay the course with a hardworking rugby lover at a time when the economy has not suffered a recession in nearly 28 years.
"Australians are just deeply conservative — wherever possible, we cling to the status quo," said Jill Sheppard, a lecturer in politics at Australian National University. "While we want progress on certain issues, we don't like major upheavals."
The triumph by Morrison, an evangelical Christian who has expressed admiration for President Donald Trump, comes at a time of rising tension in the Asia-Pacific region. A trade war between the United States and China has forced longtime U.S. allies like Australia to weigh security ties with Washington against trade ties with Beijing.
The conservative victory also adds Australia to a growing list of countries that have shifted rightward through the politics of grievance, including Brazil, Hungary and Italy. Morrison's pitch warned older voters and rural voters in particular that a government of the left would leave them behind and favor condescending elites.
The candidate Morrison defeated, Bill Shorten, leader of the center-left Labor Party, offered an alternative pitch: a return to more government intervention on climate change and the economy, and intensified skepticism about the United States and Trump.
Shorten, despite being the face of the political opposition for six years, was not an easy sell to the public. His personal approval ratings never matched Morrison's, and he relied on the more popular and diverse members of his party to score points with the public.
On Saturday night, he conceded defeat and said he would no longer serve as opposition leader. "I know you're all hurting," he told supporters in Melbourne. "And I am, too."
Morrison, who kept policy proposals to a minimum during the campaign, rode a singular message to victory: that the Labor Party's plans to raise spending to bolster public health programs, education and wages would blow up the budget and end Australia's generation-long run of economic growth.
Ignoring the turmoil that has led his coalition to churn through three prime ministers in six years, he promoted his center-right Liberal Party as a steady hand and made promises of cheaper energy and help for first-time homeowners.