Joe Hockey: But, look, we’re getting away from what is, I think, the substance of the debate.
Tony Jones: I’m gonna get there any moment.

Well, Jones never really did get to the substance of the debate while interviewing Joe Hockey last night. Shortly after, when Jones agreed to “go over some of this”, that was merely a prelude to asking whether the term “Hockey-nomics” had been damaging to his credibility.

We went through all this during the election, didn’t we? The complaints that the media focussed on trivia and personalities and ignored policy substance? We’re seeing a perfect repeat with the reaction to Joe Hockey’s efforts to put banking regulation onto the political agenda.

At a time when it’s plain both sides have lost both the will and, possibly, the capacity to prosecute serious economic reform, Hockey’s efforts ought to have been welcomed – particularly given the persistent criticism that has dogged Hockey for much of his political life, that he is a lightweight. When he produces evidence he’s capable of substance, it gets ignored in favour of  horse race journalism about who’s winning and who’s losing.

That’s not to suggest that the media can’t cover both. Plainly, someone leaked to The Australian against Hockey, even if the leak has repeatedly been dismissed as entirely wrong. That is a yarn in itself. One well-placed source points the finger for the leak at Malcolm Turnbull — a claim this morning categorically rejected by Turnbull’s office as “absolutely incorrect”.

Worse, Tony Abbott appeared to go out of his way to compound the damage yesterday by refusing to support Hockey’s plan, which had been ticked off by shadow Cabinet.

But that hardly justifies Tony Jones asking 18 questions about personalities and internal politics and a bare five about what Hockey is actually arguing. Some of the 18 were about what was going through Tony Abbott’s mind. Given Abbott himself appears not to know what’s going on in his own head some of the time, it was extraordinary that Hockey was being quizzed thus.

And it hardly justifies that most of the Press Gallery has failed to cover the detail of what Hockey has spoken about, leaving that to the likes of Peter Martin, Stephen Bartholomeusz and Terry McCrann and business writers like Ian Verrender.

Hockey’s also been copping a variant of the “lightweight” criticism, with claims that economist Christopher Joye wrote Hockey’s AIG speech. Crikey understands that Hockey wrote the first draft of the speech, and then sought feedback from a range of internal and external experts, including Joye, who had led the debate on banking regulation and initiated the idea of Government support for the RMBS market, which has kept the non-bank lending sector alive through the GFC.

But many of the ideas in Hockey’s 9-point plan have been kicking around for some time, and in fact Hockey himself called for a “Son of Wallis” inquiry in 2009.

Why isn’t there more attention being paid to Wayne Swan’s facile dismissal of Hockey’s proposals, particularly on the day when the NAB unveiled a super profit? All we’ve had from the Government is cheap lines about chicken nuggets and Bill Shorten’s pathetic effort earlier in the week to plead for protection of those skittish foreign investors. In fact, it is the Government that is isolated on this. There is concern about the market power of the banks in Treasury, the RBA and the ACCC.

Even the chief apologist for the banking cartel, Steven Munchenberg, was telling the ABC this morning that 8 of the 9 points were worth considering (predictably, the cartel objects to any additional powers being given to the ACCC to investigate its blatant price signalling, which the banks insist is entirely for the benefit of theirs customers). They’re also in line with issues being discussed by Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and Paul Volcker in the US.

Even some Labor MPs are concerned at the sight of Wayne Swan standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the big banks. Swan wouldn’t even answer a simple question yesterday about the take-up of the Government’s bank-switching package.

The dismissal of Hockey’s proposals as populism by the Government — a line echoed by the CEO of ANZ this morning — is risible. Hockey is talking about recognising the too-big-to-fail nature of our banks in a regulatory system built on the idea of not guaranteeing parts of the financial system and preventing the banks’ drive for higher-risk sources of growth from endangering their core business of borrowing and lending, which is critical to the economy. “Populism” appears to have grown up and got an MBA since we last encountered it.

The bigger issue at stake here is the lesson politicians will take from the treatment of Hockey. Hockey has taken a significant risk in advancing a complex reform agenda, one easily mischaracterised by opponents. Undoubtedly he stumbled in his first outing on the issue, and that harmed his cause. But he’s been undermined by colleagues, savaged by the Government and unfairly treated by the Press Gallery.

The lesson is clear — don’t take risks on serious policy, remain risk-averse, don’t expose yourself. It’s the same lesson politicians will have learnt from Kevin Rudd’s demise in the context of the RSPT — sound though complex policy that was poorly communicated, savaged by opponents and, ultimately, undermined from within.

Labor might figure that if they copped it, Hockey can cop it too, but it means Australia’s reform drought doesn’t look like breaking any time soon.

Peter Fray

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