Josh Frydenberg can see the summit. Ever since he entered politics a decade ago, the treasurer has worn that ambition on his sleeve.
“He will be prime minister,’’ Liberal elder George Swinburne told The Weekend Australian more than a decade ago. It’s been a common refrain, repeated by insiders, rivals and journalists ever since.
Now, as he delivers the most important budget in decades, Frydenberg faces the biggest test of a charmed political life, one that will determine whether he can make it to the top.
But it wasn’t always politics. Some 30 years ago Frydenberg deferred university for a year to attempt to build a professional tennis career. “My ambitions were far greater than my talents,” he later said.
But being an almost-tennis star is a positive. It adds colour to profiles (we get to see his mullet!), and provides angles, grit and multitudes to what would otherwise be the stock-standard origin story of any ambitious Liberal party apparatchik.
Frydenberg grew up in Kew, in Melbourne’s leafy affluent east. Dad Harry was a surgeon, mum Erika Strausz a psychologist, parents who met after fleeing the carnage of the Holocaust. He was educated at Jewish schools Bialik and Mt Scopus.
After flirting with tennis, Frydenberg doggedly built the kind of CV that helps you leap to the front of the Liberal preselection queue. Law and economics at Monash. A stint at a “big six” law firm. Oxford, of course (where tennis won him a blue). Harvard next.
By the early aughts, Frydenberg was in Canberra, advising Alexander Downer and later John Howard. And when he took a break in 2004 to work as a jackaroo in the outback, detractors said it was all a craven resume-building exercise, a far-too-literal adoption of Howard’s call for political aspirants to build “life experience”.
“I was exhausted after a number of years working in Parliament House and I wanted to get out to the most remote place possible,” Frydenberg would later tell The Sydney Morning Herald.
By 34, Frydenberg felt he was ready for politics. But he would only settle for Kooyong — the bluest of blue ribbon Liberal seats. Three of the previous holders — Andrew Peacock, Robert Menzies, and John Latham — went on to become conservative party leaders.
That 2006 attempt at preselection against moderate incumbent Petro Georgiou ended in a drubbing, even with former boss Downer backing Frydenberg. Undeterred, having united former Liberal leaders Peacock and Howard behind him, he entered parliament in the 2010 election following Georgiou’s retirement.
Since then, Frydenberg has been a political survivor, perhaps the only Liberal to emerge from the mess of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison turmoil with a reputation enhanced.
In 2015 he became assistant treasurer and promised to smash union “control” of industry super, only to join the long list of Coalition super ministers who tried the same and failed.
He then moved to the energy and environment portfolio, where in 2018 he served up the National Energy Guarantee. Whatever its shortcomings, a real Coalition energy policy would have been an achievement. Instead, it ended Malcolm Turnbull’s career.
But Frydenberg survived, and was rewarded with Scott Morrison’s old Treasury portfolio.
What’s the source of Frydenberg’s untouchability? We know his work ethic is, like political hero Margaret Thatcher, the stuff of legend.
“If Frydenberg does sleep — and there’s sometimes reason to doubt he does — it cannot be more than five hours a night,” Nine newspapers’ national affairs editor Rob Harris writes.
We know he’s been a consummate networker since long before entering parliament. And we know this stuff because Frydenberg tells us. He understands that journalists — for all their failings — have their uses, and works the media like few in Canberra. Frydenberg was holding afternoon tea sessions for journalists since his backbench days.
“Few people follow the minister’s media appearances as closely as he does, but he is very obliging about filling you in“, writes Nine columnist Jacqueline Maley.
But no amount of networking and schmoozing and backgrounding can change the arc of history. Frydenberg was adamant in last year’s budget that Australia would return to surplus the next year. The party had mugs and other memorobilia made up to that effect. History intervened.
And it all culminates here: the 2020 budget, possibly the biggest and riskiest in living memory. He has had no choice but to the abandon the surplus fetish that has dominated politics for longer than he’s been a part of it.
He is, by all accounts, very keen that people like him, but this budget will mean making some unpopular calls. As ANU history professor Frank Bongiorno told Crikey, the journey from treasurer to PM, while common, can be fraught.
“I imagine Paul Keating’s the most attractive model for Frydenberg. He delivered some tough budgets in the 1980s, which won him public respect, if often grudging. And he went on to become a successful PM, if not one who enjoyed longevity in the role.”
Frydenberg has the politician’s greatest gift — an ability to have successes stick, and the general aura of competence preserved while shirking failures and chaos. He is, as the saying goes, willing to be lucky.
But for all his luck, even Frydenberg might struggle to shake off the chaos of 2020.