Why was outgoing Australian ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey so happy about pulling such a powerful Trump-friendly crowd to his farewell party on Friday night?
The 400 or so guests at the Washington event included billionaire Anthony Pratt, former PM Tony Abbott, golfer Greg Norman, Bret Baier from Fox News, and the president’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Was it because Hockey wanted his successor, Arthur Sinodinos, to meet and greet some important people? Well, no, Arthur wasn’t there.
Or could it be because of Hockey’s impending push into the private sector in Washington where he’ll be taking on a soon-to-be-announced role that encompasses “infrastructure, strategic directions, world affairs”?
Matthew Knott, Crikey’s former media writer who is now The Age/SMH man in Washington, spelt out the former treasurer’s plans in a farewell interview with Joe last week:
After a short visit to Australia, Hockey and his family will return to Washington. They are already renting a new home a few blocks away from the ambassador’s residence in the stately suburb of Woodley Park. The former treasurer said he has no fixed timeframe for life in Washington and expects to stay for well over a year.
Murdoch loyalist and long-time Liberal Party backer Miranda Devine was even less subtle in The Sunday Telegraph, writing that “Hockey plans now to go into business and make some money”. She also published a series of herograms about how great Joe Hockey was from the likes of Greg Norman, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
Hockey reckons he did a great job for Australia too. He told Devine:
We rebuilt the relationship after the rocky start. We convinced the Trump administration to keep the refugee deal, we managed to get ourselves exempted from the steel and aluminium tariffs — the only country in the world. We preserved the status quo on [Australia’s exclusive] E3 visas … and we had the extraordinary state dinner last year [for Prime Minister Scott Morrison].
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But what about last week’s US-China trade deal which, as Kevin Rudd explained, looks like a shocker for Australia? Trump has committed to prioritise Chinese imports over Australian product in a whole range of areas including agriculture, energy, coal, liquefied natural gas, seafood and beef.
Perhaps organising the party, which Miranda Devine reported was funded by Anthony Pratt, proved a distraction?
It might be a regular thing for federal cabinet ministers to cash in from their connections after leaving politics, but it’s pretty blatant of Hockey to spend four years milking all his Trump administration contacts — having sucked up to Trump himself for three years — and then to go out to make truckloads of money for himself.
It also appears he’s abandoning his home country and staying in Washington.
You would think the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would have a protocol for ambassadors to return home and continue assisting the government for a bit, rather than permanently upping sticks in the pursuit of personal profits.
For instance: would it be okay for Australia’s outgoing ambassador in Moscow to get an Australian billionaire living in Russia with close ties to Putin to fund a big party for Putin sympathisers and then plan and establish a new private sector business in Moscow before even finishing their taxpayer-funded job?
The last five Australian ambassadors in Moscow have all been career diplomats who went on to other postings, using their knowledge and connections to continue to serve their country. This is how it should be, and Hockey’s decision to cash in straight after a four-year stretch in the most prestigious DFAT gig once again raises questions about the merit of putting ex-politicians into diplomatic missions.
Maybe it is time to introduce a cooling-off period before someone like Joe Hockey or Arthur Sinodinos can take up a foreign posting, along with a retention strategy that requires all exiting ambassadors to wait at least 12 months before going into a related private sector gig, especially working in a foreign country.
I wonder what Sinodinos thinks of the situation. He might be happy to have Hockey living down the road in Washington, giving unofficial advice from time to time. Then again, like many new chairs or CEOs or football coaches, maybe he would prefer to have his predecessor right out of the picture.
Whatever the case, Sinodinos and DFAT should establish clear guidelines on what Hockey is allowed to be told and where he can go. His new business venture will no doubt be tapping into the big US and Australian contact book built up over the past 24 years, and he will be hoping for ongoing insights and connections from Sinodinos’ office.
We’ve seen Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne probed for the indecent haste they showed in landing government-reliant gigs straight after leaving parliament. It may well be time to extend this to Joe Hockey’s arrangements, once we see precisely what he is planning to do.
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