Is Scott Morrison in line for Australia's top job?

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Australian Social Security Minister Scott MorrisonImage source, Getty Images
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Social Security Minister Scott Morrison is seen by some as a strong Cabinet performer

Ahead of the budget release last week, Scott Morrison emerged as the government's chief economic salesman, eclipsing Treasurer Joe Hockey and igniting speculation he could one day take Australia's top job.

When Australia's social security minister Scott Morrison was a student, his academically selective Sydney Boys High School staged the musical Oliver! In what was, by all accounts, a skilled performance, the talented young singer and dancer played the Artful Dodger.

The minister now charged with cutting Australia's welfare budget certainly appears to share some characteristics with his Dickensian alter-ego.

At 47, the former immigration minister - who has been successful in stopping asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat - is a shrewd pragmatist.

Like Oliver Twist's streetwise associate, he is also looking to get ahead.

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Tony Abbott may be facing a new rival in Scott Morrison

Image makeover

Before Prime Minister Tony Abbott received a bounce in opinion polls from the budget, Mr Morrison was being talked about as a possible replacement for Treasurer Joe Hockey and a longer-term rival to Mr Abbott.

He has sidestepped the speculation; he dismissed suggestions of elevation to treasurer as "total and utter nonsense" and declined a request to talk to the BBC for this story.

But comments from conservative colleagues such as former MP Sophie Mirabella, who recently introduced him as "the next conservative prime minister of Australia", have fuelled the speculation.

Fans praise the minister's communication skills and willingness to listen.

"He's absolutely terrific," says Liberal backbencher Teresa Gambaro, hosting him in her Brisbane electorate last week.

"He is very consultative. He's flexible enough to take feedback from people and fine tune his policies. That's what I really like about him."

Mixed views

Mr Morrison's public persona has transformed dramatically since his shift from the immigration portfolio six months ago.

But some of his colleagues are more cynical about the remaking of "ScoMo", as he is known around Parliament House, although they won't make their criticisms public.

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The arrival of asylum seekers by boat has been a contentious issue for Australia

Crossbench senators' opinions are also mixed. Those senators will determine the fate of his modified measures on childcare, family tax benefits, pensions and paid parental leave.

Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie believes Mr Morrison didn't do all he promised in removing asylum-seeker children from detention.

"A half bloody cocked job," she says.

"If he wants a pat on the back, I'm not giving him one … This social security portfolio is going to test him out. We're going to see what Scott Morrison's made of."

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm says Mr Morrison dropped his dictatorial style when negotiations faltered.

"Now he's really quite good. I quite like dealing with him … He's a straight shooter."

Fast mouth

Still, Senator Leyonhjelm detects a hint of "disdain" for those slow to grasp things.

"His body language says 'I'd rather not be doing this'. But he does it."

Labor Shadow Families Minister Jenny Macklin says a pre-budget briefing for the Opposition lacked detail, the budget lacked comparative tables for social security spending and questions about the full impact of welfare changes went unanswered.

"I think he's all talk and actually the way he behaved on paid parental leave really saw the old Scott Morrison right back," says Ms Macklin.

It was Mr Morrison who turned the government's politically-promising retreat from an unpopular parental leave plan into a damaging debate, when he condemned "rorting" [scamming] mothers as "double-dippers" for using existing schemes exactly as they were designed.

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Mr Morrison oversaw a deal where Cambodia accepted some of Australia's asylum seekers

It's not the first time a fast mouth has caused trouble. Mr Morrison was lambasted as heartless for a scathing 2011 attack on the Labor Government when it flew asylum-seeker relatives to their drowned children's funerals. He apologised - for the timing.

When he changed portfolios, apprehension swept the community sector.

"What the minister did in his time in [the immigration] portfolio was, tragically, skilfully done," says Australian Council of Social Service President Cassandra Goldie.

"When people were asking me to be alarmed, I said 'Well, we will see what his brief is'."

Religious influences

Ms Goldie says the budget remains unfair but Mr Morrison mastered the brief and persuaded Cabinet to moderate its plans.

"He has definitely demonstrated that he is across the detail," she says.

Now connected to the socially conservative Pentecostal movement, the minister was raised in the more progressive Uniting Church, in Sydney's beachside suburbs.

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Mr Morrison has earned some praise for adopting a more consultative style

UnitingCare national director Lin Hatfield Dodds describes him as consultative, pragmatic, intelligent and "political" but not ideological.

"Every time I've met with him I think 'This is someone who's thoughtful and strategic and definitely wants to change the country for the better'," she says.

"I may not agree with all of his ideas and directions but the engagement feels genuine. We'll know in the next six months."

Nine years ago, non-consultation cost Mr Morrison his director's job at Tourism Australia.

"A nine-member board said 'We can no longer work with him'," says the woman who sacked him, then tourism minister Fran Bailey. "It was a tough call. I stood by it then and I stand by it now."

But Ms Bailey says Mr Morrison seems to have learnt from that experience.

"He's been a stand-out communicator in the government."

Some would say adaptation is a political attribute. As the adapter-in-chief, Scott Morrison is getting on with his job - and biding his time.