Name me a tubby Prime Minister. Joe Hockey, described this morning in one paper as a Liberal ” tough guy” and in another as ” a formidable communicator“, probably needs both skills if he is to succeed as shadow Treasurer where Julie Bishop failed.

To me, the problem the Liberals have had in the economic debate was not so much the messenger as the message. The party suffered from thinking that the time was right for an Opposition to oppose when the people were of mind that Labor should be allowed to get on with the job they were elected to perform. Relative silence would have been the best policy but it takes a really tough politician not to succumb to the clamoring from the sidelines for a gladiatorial style contest in the parliament.

As for the ability to communicate, it was the friendly, jovial Joe who enjoyed the popularity of the Sunrise audience when he did the double act with Kevin Rudd. Jocularity is not a natural fit with a would-be Treasurer bound to talk about horrid things like interest rates and unemployment. In my experience, the best Treasurers over the years have had a mean and hungry look with a sneer on their face instead of a smile. To fit the new role some Hockey weight loss is essential and trimming down is even more essential if there is a desire to one day become Prime Minister. We tubbies do not have a good record at becoming national leaders.

Keep ticking the promise boxes. No election promise is too small, it seems, not to be acknowledged with a press release when it is kept. Yesterday the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke gave us the good news that the Rudd Government has delivered on another election commitment — announcing $2.5 million for 28 weeds research projects funded through the new Australian Weeds Research Centre.

Put Farmer on the memory pill. My old Labor associate was far to kind to suggest I investigate the new treatment revealed overnight in London’s Daily Mail but my memory of events 35 years ago clearly got hazy yesterday.

Fancy thinking that Labor’s grand old man had reluctantly flown back from Rhodes at the time of Cyclone Tracey! He suffered politically not for coming home too slowly but, in the eyes of some, leaving too quickly.

My mate remembers it this way:

Gough was in London at the time (Rhodes may have been on the agenda, but I don’t think he ever got there). He caught the first available Qantas plane back to Australia, and then RAAF VIP from Perth to Alice Springs overnight. Then Darwin the next morning for a tour and mini-Cabinet with Jim Cairns and a few others. That night he flew to Sydney for a full Cabinet meeting the next morning, the most important decision of which was to rebuild Darwin (a real issue). I’m not sure whether it was that Cabinet that decided to appoint Clem Jones to make sure it was rebuilt. Gough was away from the European tour for 5 days, which was left in the hands of Lionel Bowen, who had to deal with a large number of journalists who were tracking along with Gough’s European trip who had not had the chance of flying back to Darwin with him.

That version tallies with that of Nicholas Whitlam who kindly set me straight as well:

Gough flew back from London as soon as the magnitude of Cyclone Tracey became apparent. I know because I arrived at my parents hotel on Christmas Day expecting to take them to lunch at my in-laws; I had seen my parents on Christmas Eve and the news had come in overnight. It is true he flew back to Europe after inspecting the damage in Darwin and participating in whatever decisions were necessary. Only then did he fly back to Europe, to Greece in fact; he thought it important to be the first Australian PM in memory — perhaps ever — to honour his undertaking to make an official visit to the country of origin of one of our largest ethnic populations. There is little doubt that it would have been better politics to stay behind and wallow in the grief, but he was never like that.

Peter Fray

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