We couldn’t help but notice your outburst this week, in which you complained that the media was “polarised” and against you, Labor weren’t providing bipartisan support for you, and the business community was “weak” in its support. As you’re the steward of our economic fortunes and a successful Treasurer is an important part of a successful economy, we thought we’d offer you some thoughts on how, with your first anniversary in the job looming, you can make the rest of your time in the job more successful.
1. Stop whingeing. Even your colleagues are starting to notice that you’re given to complaining about your lot. There are plenty of them who would happily have your job. No one cares about a politician lamenting how tough his job is, anyway. Being Treasurer is supposed to be tough: you are looking after the 12th or 13th biggest economy in the world, with a AAA credit rating. You are not entitled to anything other than the pay and perks. And you have to earn those.
2. Accept that your economic challenges aren’t that great compared internationally or even to your predecessors. There’s no Asian financial crisis, like Peter Costello had. There’s no global financial crisis, like Wayne Swan had, or the task of landing a mining investment boom without an inflationary breakout. In fact, some of your problems, like a strong dollar, are ones that reflect Australia’s economic success. You have a low inflation, low interest rate, low public debt, high-skilled economy with low trade barriers positioned next to the growth region of the 21st century. Ask your visiting counterparts in November how many of them would like to swap places.
3. So stop talking down the economy. Henny Penny is a terrible look for any minister, but especially a treasurer. You must remember how Kevin Rudd continued sounding like an opposition leader long after he became prime minister. You’re doing the same, looking for the cloud in every economic silver lining and blaming your opponents for it. If you want to know what impact a Treasurer talking down the economy can have, look at what you did to retail sales in May.
4. Acknowledge the budget is unfair. Seriously, your stoush this week with Peter Martin was utterly unbecoming and brought to mind your attempt to bully David Peetz over WorkChoices in 2007. You are not Paul Keating, not even Peter Costello, who both liked to pick up the phone and hector journalists. You’ve already lost the fairness argument, probably lost it before you’d sat down on budget night. Time to admit yes, the budget is unfair, but it’s because low- and middle-income earners receive far more from the government than high-income earners and companies and cuts to government outlays are inevitably going to hurt the former more than the latter.
5. Flag that the tax review will directly tackle the rapidly growing cost of superannuation tax concessions, which flow disproportionately (wildly disproportionately) to high-income earners, and that high-income earners will in the future benefit less from super. That will do something to offset the perceptions of unfairness dogging you.
6. Yes, the media environment is polarised. You say you’ve never seen that before — maybe because you benefited from the polarisation when you were in opposition. Media outlets that “abandon the argument for good reform” because they’re being partisan is exactly how News Corporation behaved from the moment Labor was elected, so don’t lament something that you benefited from (similarly, stop demanding bipartisan support for your policies, when you gave zero support to Labor’s reforms or budget cuts). Remember that when John Howard decided the Press Gallery was against him, he innovated and went around them.
7. So, for example, understand that in an increasingly fractured media environment, effective communicators have to simplify their message to cut through. Assembling a long list of controversial reforms and trying to run them all at once, which was your budget approach, is never going to work in such an environment because you can’t concentrate on making the case for individual reforms while fighting spotfires across a number of fronts.
8. Forget about business support. Voters already think your party are too close to business and mainly interested in doing its bidding, ahead of what would be best for ordinary Australians. The support of business carries no weight outside the tiny readerships of the national dailies. And the quality of the contribution of business peak bodies to public debate is lamentable. It’s either the same incessant whining about IR, or rent-seeking demands for handouts and winner-picking.
9. Smile. You used to be very popular with voters because they could see a decent bloke poking through the political exterior. The plummeting in your approval numbers has coincided with an angrier, harder public persona. If nothing else, people are more likely to listen to you if they see a bit more of the Hockey of old rather than a beetle-browed fiscal disciplinarian.
So use your one-year anniversary to press the reset button. Much depends on your performance — not just the government’s fortunes, but more important things too, like the economy, the jobs of 12 million workers and our 23 years without a recession.