I was Joe’s Chief of Staff during his period as Minister for Small Business and Tourism in the Howard Government. Prior to his appointment in the role, tourism was the unloved overachiever of the Australian economy. Since the political demise of John Brown, a series of uninspiring Ministers had sat on their hands and complacently watched as tourism grew into our largest service-sector export earner. And then came the crunch — notwithstanding the Olympics, the industry began a long slide starting with the Asian financial crisis and climinating in September 11, 2001 and the collapse of Ansett. The industry needed attention and it needed it fast.
Enter Joe. John Howard knew the industry needed help and asked Joe to develop a medium-to-long term strategy for the industry. Joe countered audaciously by saying the industry should have a White Paper, and to the consternation of Joe’s Departmental Secretary, his bureaucrats, his Senior Minister and most of the Cabinet, John Howard agreed.
The courage of this act should not be underestimated. Canberra insiders would know what a big deal a White Paper is. White Papers are usually reserved for the big swinging dicks in Defence or Transport, supported by massive Departmental resources and “visiting fellows” in various think tanks. And here was a junior Minister, with the second-smallest staff contingent in the Government and a grand total of 20 public servants planning to undertake a full discussion-paper, green-paper and white Paper process. He had burned his bridges — most said he would fail and everybody who had it in for him set about to make sure he would.
Joe undertook an incredibly punishing workload to prove them wrong. Where most “lazy” Ministers would have sat back and let the public servants do all the work while they berated and abused them, Joe, to the frustration of his bleary-eyed staff, read every public sumbission forensically. During late-night reading sessions he lectured us about the respect we should show to the people who had taken the time to write a submission, good or bad.
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He treated his bureacrats with equal respect — I never saw Joe lose his temper nor belittle them as others are wont to do. He clinically calculated where he would draw support and encounter resistance within the government and developed the correct tactics to deal with both. For example, Peter Costello — supposedly one of Joe’s great supporters — wanted to have nothing to do with tourism and tried assiduoulsy to avoid the topic. Joe would find out when he would be in his Treasury Place office and we would fly down to Melbourne and camp in his lobby ’till he eventually saw us. At the same time Joe undertook as series of punishing regional tours visiting tourism businesses who had not seen a Tourism Minister for years, if at all. He took on the vested interests in the legal community as public liability insurance for small business all but disappeared. He commenced his role on the Sunrise program which at the time was on a Monday morning — which meant we worked all Sunday in preparation.
These are not the habits of a lazy careerist.
The White Paper was eventually passed by Cabinet with signficant extra funding for tourism and the creation of Tourism Australia. In the grand scheme of things the money wasn’t much — Brendan Nelson quipped to Joe that it was less than one wing of one of his planes. But what it did show was that a Minister faced with a mountain of obstacles could overcome them with sheer hard work — a lesson to many of the young bucks on the Opposition front-bench today.
Political scientists like Abjorensen understimate Joe Hockey because he’s he’s not a cardboard cut-out poltical hack that fits easily into their caculus. Joe is passionate, idealistic and wears his heart on his sleeve. He lets it all hang out at times and while that resonates with the punters it doesn’t with the dry, self-appointed keepers of our political morals.
As for the Greg Barns’s of this world, they dislike Joe because (notwithstanding the grinding of personal axes) they can’t work out how someone can be both a “normal” human being and a successful politician. In their deluded fantasies they cry “if he can do it, it couldabeen me”! They’ll continue to underestimate and belittle him and he will continue, passionately, getting on with the job.
Matt Hingerty was Joe Hockey’s Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2004.