Liability Management: Abbott Must Deal With Joe Hockey

WITH THE ABBOTT GOVERNMENT making a steady recovery in public opinion, it does not need the same brand of grubby politicking it decried of Labor from opposition to now emanate from its own senior ranks; the latest gaffe of Treasurer Joe Hockey threatens to derail both the government’s resurgent political stocks and its excellent handling of national security matters. Hockey has become a liability. It is time for the Prime Minister to act.

Having been on the hop the past couple of days (but nonetheless following events closely as I’ve moved about the place) I’m writing a catch-up piece this morning; for some extra material for readers who are so inclined, this report from Melbourne’s Herald Sun and this opinion piece from veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes will help background those who aren’t across what is yet another regrettable gaffe by Joe Hockey — who really ought to know better.

I had wanted to talk about ideas for overhauling the Federation and governance today. These will instead have to wait.

I think most readers know I am warmly disposed toward the Treasurer personally, and I have (with the exception of his leadership tilt in 2009) been a strong supporter of his rise through the ranks of the Liberal Party. Irrespective of any fallout from today’s article, my personal regard for Hockey remains unchanged, and I do believe that he continues to offer something in the context of the ongoing Abbott government.

For a time after the Coalition’s big election win last year it seemed Hockey had cemented his place as the heir apparent to the Liberal leadership; in the early days of the new government Hockey was assured, his performance strong, and his handling of a raft of potentially explosive issues — the announcements by car manufacturers they would cease operations here, the remedy over the Commonwealth’s debt ceiling, and the legislative tidy-up of the messy taxation arrangements left behind by the ALP are just a few — had most within the Coalition and the commentariat (including myself) predicting that he would follow Tony Abbott as Liberal leader, “when the time comes.”

Less than a year later, it now seems that that “time” may well never arrive.

The Treasurer cannot be blamed for the initial “wobbles” in poll support for the government that were caused by stumbles not uncharacteristic of new, first-term administrations; Education minister Christopher Pyne’s hamfisted attempt to modify funding arrangements to the states is a case in point.

And he can hardly be blamed for the adverse effects on the government’s standing caused by Edward Snowden’s so-called revelations, which sparked a major diplomatic row with Indonesia over practices that occurred during the tenure of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, and that the Coalition bore the political fallout from whilst the contemptible remnants of the Labor Party sat on their collective hands and fumed with mock — and hypocritical — outrage.

But the collapse in Coalition support in May occurred as a direct consequence of a very poorly contrived budget that targeted floating voters in marginal Coalition seats, which was compounded by a thoroughly incompetent “sales” effort that worsened the political impact on the government when it should have succeeded in at least neutralising a tough, if misdirected, but nonetheless necessary effort in repairing government finances.

It is, perhaps, indelicate to note that as soon as the budget was pushed into the political background, the Coalition’s position in reputable polling began to improve.

And it is, perhaps, indecent to observe that the improvement coincided with the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe and the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, and has continued in the face of the emergence of terrorist scourge Islamic State and the attendant terror risk on Australian soil.

But Prime Minister Tony Abbott — along with key ministers Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison — have handled these later events with skill, sensitivity and great aplomb, and as trivial as opinion sampling can be when weighed against the real events that often influence it, the dividend of public sentiment the government appears to have reaped is well deserved for a job that has, to date, been well done.

It makes Hockey’s outburst this week — in short, that if the Labor Party is as committed to a bipartisan position on sending Australian forces to help deal with Islamic State as it claims, then it should pass the budget to help pay for it — look petty, grubby, and a sure sign that in the time since the budget was delivered and mishandled, whatever had driven his missteps then remains unchanged now.

In this column previously, I have defended Hockey as a minister with great ability and much to contribute to the Abbott government; in fact, so supportive have I been of Hockey personally that I have blamed bad advice from incompetent political and media advisors — at the risk of being accused of sour grapes over being centrally vetted from consideration for the ministerial wing.

Now — and not least given the reports of high staff turnover in Hockey’s ministerial office since the budget — I’m not so sure.

The ALP, in offering bipartisan support for military deployments to the Middle East, has quite responsibly avoided a repeat of the bitter division and petty politicking of 2003, when Labor not only opposed outright the sending of troops to Iraq by the Howard government, but its leader, Simon Crean, publicly undermined morale by addressing departing troops in those terms at their send-off.

And the searing acrimony and relentless division this issue continued to generate followed Howard all the way to the 2007 election defeat, and although it was by no means decisive in Howard’s loss, it is inarguable that it didn’t at the very least contribute to the magnitude of that defeat.

Shorten Labor has spared the Coalition the prospect of a repeat of those consequences, at least for now.

But the attempt by Hockey to now link the bipartisanship the ALP has provided to blunt demands that it pass his budget is a political miscalculation that could well backfire, and which throws up several unpalatable truths.

Should he continue (or even stiffen) his insistence that the two should be linked, Hockey runs the risk of Labor withdrawing its support for the military actions, or — perhaps worse — could embolden Labor to adopt an even more obstructive approach to the government’s legislative program than it has to date, and Labor has already shown itself adept at helping frustrate Coalition bills in the Senate.

His unwise intervention — slapped down, as the Hun‘s article notes, by Abbott and Bishop — is reminiscent of Labor attempts to link its grossly bungled mining tax with unfunded handouts that were neither justified nor affordable, and whilst the comparison is of apples and oranges in the policy sense, the cack-brained flavour and cynically opportunistic appearance of the two acts are identical.

It handed Shorten a soapbox from which to assume the high moral ground, bellowing about broken Liberal Party promises and presenting the ALP as the true champion of the Australian people: an own goal Hockey should have had the foresight, in making his remarks, to anticipate. It is difficult to take assumptions of the high moral ground by someone as disloyal and treacherous as Bill Shorten seriously at the best of times, but Hockey inexplicably gifted the pious Shorten a platform from which to do just that.

Her was even able, legitimately, to engage in the glib and facile farce of “congratulating” the Prime Minister for disciplining Hockey — a sham as sickening as it is hypocritical.

And with the Liberals’ positioning rhetoric — that “grown-ups” are back in charge — this kind of outburst would entitle the jaded or the cynical to believe that if Hockey’s words are any guide, the Liberals are just as grubby, slimy and amateurish as those they defeated last September. Drawing such conclusions are neither accurate nor fair, especially having regard to what has been (the budget notwithstanding) a very solid performance in office from the Coalition overall to date.

It is more appropriate to start to wonder out loud whether Hockey — every times he opens his mouth — is going to cause the government embarrassment.

And it is indicated, as Oakes rightly notes, to observe that what should be a watertight relationship between a Prime Minister and his Treasurer — in the professional sense at least — is looking a little tattered.

Despite the promising start, it’s not much of an overstatement to suggest that for the duration of 2014 to date, Hockey has done very little to aid the government’s cause, but he has caused it a great deal of unnecessary anguish.

And with a second “horror” budget looking increasingly likely next year — largely to finish the job the first has failed to do, with tens of billions of dollars in required but unrealised savings now having to be found from somewhere else — Coalition confidence that Hockey is either up to producing such a budget and/or selling it, when both tasks were so spectacularly botched six months ago, is difficult to inspire.

Oakes, in his column, canvasses a number of options for “dealing” with Hockey. But trimming his responsibilities, or dragging Abbott into his portfolio to effectively act as a hand brake on the Treasurer (without affecting his own performance in his job as Prime Minister) merely skirt the issue.

And in view of Oakes’ famously impeccable backgrounding tactics, it is reasonable to infer from his comments that substantial resentment and dissatisfaction — maybe even outright hostility — now exist within the Coalition party room over Hockey’s performance.

After a torrid year, there is no reason to expect Hockey will fare any better moving forward, nor that he will add to the Coalition’s political stocks as its chief economic minister and salesman.

In fact, given he has bungled these responsibilities so badly for so long, it is difficult to continue to support Hockey politically at all.

At the very minimum, I think the time has come for Hockey to be removed from the Treasury portfolio; this may involve a sideways move, or it may involve a demotion to a more junior ministry. Alternatively, he could be sacked altogether.

After all, based on this year’s performance, any retaliation involving a leadership challenge is hardly going to galvanise much support.

Hockey, in short, has become an unmitigated liability whose shortcomings, if they continue,  could well destroy the government.

Whichever way it is resolved (and for the record, I continue to favour Hockey being moved to a non-economic role in a final attempt to utilise him productively in the government), the problem isn’t going to go away, it seems, unless Tony Abbott acts to resolve it.

His record of loyalty to his ministers is an admirable trait, but it is time for the Prime Minister to show his mettle. Australia needs a new Treasurer. It is time for Abbott to act.

 

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