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Apr 18, 2012

The Power Index: is Joe Hockey up to the job?

Joe Hockey looks set to have the toughest job in Australian politics come September next year. That's when, if current polls bear out over the next 18 months, he'll become treasurer.

Joe Hockey looks set to have the toughest job in Australian politics come September next year. That’s when, if current polls bear out over the next 18 months, he’ll become treasurer.

It will be the moment of truth for a man whose stint as shadow treasurer — from February 2009, when he replaced the accident-prone Julie Bishop — has been marked by struggles over fiscal credibility and ongoing battles with the economic irrationalist wing of the Coalition: the Nationals and economic interventionists.

With an easygoing demeanour and a Beazleyesque girth, Hockey’s long battled perceptions that he’s too nice for the hard stuff of politics. Many in the business community regard him as a lightweight — “buffoon” is one of the harsher terms thrown around.

What Hockey definitely has is, for a politician, the dangerous quality of an open mind. Too open, say his critics — he’s the man who famously damaged his leadership prospects by asking his Twitter followers what they thought about climate action. Senior politicians are supposed to be men and women of conviction, certain in their beliefs and hellbent on implementing their agenda.

But his banking reform campaign in 2010 reflected a willingness to consider different approaches to important economic ideas. It wasn’t standard Liberal philosophy — he incurred the wrath of the banks and particularly ANZ’s Asia-obsessed Mike Smith (who childishly compared Hockey to Hugo Chavez) for calling them out on their determination to become systemically-riskier growth stocks. But he had the backing of some of Australia’s most-respected economists and was able to stir Wayne Swan — who found himself portrayed as the bank’s loyal defender — into creating a (half-baked) banking reform package.

Hockey is anything but the Liberal from Central Casting. There’s the Armenian/Palestinian background, for starters. He did have a traditional moneyed Sydney Catholic education at Aloysius College and St John’s at Sydney University, as well as a stint in student politics — Hockey was SRC president at Sydney in 1987 (and was accused of failing to aggressively lead student demonstrations for fear of endangering his solicitors’ and barristers’ admission board enrolment).

But his time as a student politician was defiantly non-partisan. It was only later he declared an ideological epiphany and joined the Liberals, working as a senior adviser for John Fahey and gaining preselection for North Sydney. At that stage the preselection looked worthless — the seat was held by local legend and independent Ted Mack, who could have stayed there for the rest of his life. But Mack decided to bail out before he earned (another) parliamentary pension, and Hockey entered parliament in 1996.

While Hockey’s progress was rapid, there remained questions over how much policy substance he could muster. He stumbled selling the GST in 2000 as assistant treasurer, and spent two years in the low-profile Human Services portfolio (where the ID card issue burnt him), but was then promoted by John Howard to Workplace Relations in a desperate, futile effort to soften WorkChoices before it destroyed the government.

In recent months, his biggest fight has been against protectionists within his own party who wanted the opposition to reverse its commitment to reducing automotive manufacturing subsidies. It was the first substantial fightback against the populist, big-spending policies that have characterised the Liberals under Tony Abbott, and it was successful. It suggested Hockey — who was last year humiliated over a proposal that one of Australia’s premier tax rorts, family trusts, be targeted by tax authorities — was starting to gain traction within his party on a more economically orthodox platform.

Business and economists will be hoping Hockey continues to strengthen into the party’s economic disciplinarian who’ll keep a big-government leader and the Nationals under control.

*To comment and for more visit The Power Index

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18 comments

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18 thoughts on “The Power Index: is Joe Hockey up to the job?

  1. Jimmy

    Hockey clearly ins’t up to it, the coalitions economic policy is confused and will probably lead the country into recession and whenever he is asked about it he seems to channel Sir joh and respond “now don’t you worry about that then”

  2. SBH

    Bernard, If you’d ever dealt with public servants who had Hockey as a minister or had dealings with him in any government or shadow portfolio you’d know he built a rock solid reputation as being even more hopeless that Alexander Downer. As shadow treasurer, his tenure has been marked by bumbling populist nonsense.

    The thought of him as treasurer and Abbott as PM fills one with horror.

  3. Holden Back

    Just keep writing this article, over and over, until some mainstream hacks pick it up, (‘Ooh look, free articles!’), and things could change significantly between now and August.

  4. Peter Ormonde

    Up to the job? Seriously? Following in the footsteps of giants like Billy McMahon, Phil Lynch and the blessed martyr John Howard? Course he is. How hard can it be? You just get the Melbourne Club on speed dial and do whatever Gina, Clive and the banks tell you. Like falling off a log.

  5. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    (Warning: contains severe sarcasm and traces of nuts)

    Sloppy Joe would have to be better than that Nigerian woman, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who he slagged so nicely recently, wouldn’t he?

    You know, the one who wasn’t America’s choice for President of the World Bank. Maybe Joe could shoot for that job after he’s ‘fixed’ the Australian economy.

    Anyone want to lay bets on Hockey’s chances?

  6. Mike Flanagan

    There seems to be an underlying acceptance in a number of articles in Crikey over the past few days that presumes an Abbott victory at the next election. Considering we are only half way through the current electoral cycle I believe that presumption borders on arrogance and treats your audience as “buffoons”.
    Regardless of the constant and often published voting polls it is presumptious to project these on to the voters intentions at a poll that isn’t due for anotrher 18 months.
    So the question is “if” rather than “looking set” that seems to me a more rational lead to the story.
    Hockey and many of his cohorts on the opposition benches have yet to prove themselves to have any policy substance that might entitle them to have the majority of the voters support.
    The polls over a longer period than journalists care to look indicate a volatility in the electorate that could manifest itself in any direction over the coming 18 months in the federal sphere.
    I for one still have faith in the intelligence of most our voters.

  7. eric

    Piggy Hockey is one of the dumbest shadow treasurers in living memory and dont get me started on the rest of the idiots on Abbotts front bench

    God help us if that motley crew get elected.

  8. SBH

    And just to show he’s been listening, this just in from Uncle Joe

    “We need to be vigilant. We need to compare ourselves with our Asian neighbours, where the entitlements programs of the state are far less than they are in Australia.”

    That’s what we need in the best performing economy in the world – a third world welfare system!

  9. Woody

    Yep, it’s “Welfare To Workcover” all over again….

  10. Jimmy

    SBH – I saw the start of that interview on lateline last night and turned it off before I threw something at the TV. The idea that we will get ahead by removing safety nets and cutting back on age pesnsions until we can compete with our asian neighbours is so backwards it is unbelievable.

    Should we just get all the unemployed to meet on street corner waiting for someone in a pickup truck to drive by and pick out who they want to work for them for the day?

Telling you what the others don't. FREE for 21 days.

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