Hockey backlash grows

Labor, the Greens and
crossbenchers have taken the Treasurer to task for his comments about
low income earners, but Joe Hockey has defended the comments.
Joe Hockey's colleagues and political allies have rounded on
the Treasurer, questioning his judgment and the quality of advice he is
receiving after a disastrous gaffe suggesting poor people ''don't have
cars or actually don't drive very far''.

Mr Hockey has lost three key staff from his 17-person office
in the nine months since the federal election. They include the second
and third most senior people in the office, who have left since the
budget and were charged with overseeing the budget process and providing
crucial political and economic advice.

Fairfax Media contacted more than a dozen of Mr Hockey's
supporters in the ministry and party machine; political staff; and staff
to former treasurer Peter Costello on Thursday about this week's gaffe.
All expressed surprise, concern and dismay about Mr Hockey's remarks.

Ron Tandberg
Illustration: Ron Tandberg

Furious ministerial colleagues turned on the Treasurer over
comments they variously described as ''stupid and wrong'', a ''bad
example of how to make a point'' and ''loose language''.

Several people close to Mr Hockey's office, who asked not to
be named, said he was taking advice from an increasingly small circle of
advisers - particularly chief of staff Grant Lovett and press secretary
Mike Willesee.

The loss of the experienced trio of deputy chief of staff
Creina Chapman, who moved to the corporate sector soon after overseeing
the first budget; economics adviser Tony Pearson, who took a sabbatical;
and media adviser Tony Ritchie, who joined the NSW Police media team,
suggested power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of too few

<em>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</em>
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

One observer suggested the office "lacked direction", and that Mr Hockey lacked an adviser with ''a hard political edge''.

''Joe is freelancing, being dumb with his words, though it's not Rudd office dysfunction,'' the source said.

A second observer said Mr Hockey ''could probably strengthen
his office'', adding the Treasurer needed a political adviser in the
mould of David Gazzard, the hard-nosed former political adviser to Mr

Mr Hockey's gaffe has capped a difficult three months in
which the Treasurer has been under fire for puffing on a cigar and, days
later, dancing with his son on budget night before delivering
wide-ranging budget cuts, taking a holiday to Fiji during a key
parliamentary sitting, complaining that everyone in the media was
against him and co-operating with a biography that revealed he wanted
an even tougher budget.

The North Sydney MP went on a radio blitz on Thursday in an attempt to limit the fallout from the gaffe.

''The fact of the matter is that I can only get the facts out
there and explain the facts; how people interpret them is up to them,''
he told Fairfax Radio station 2UE.

Asked if he realised if his comments sounded callous, Mr
Hockey said: ''I'm sorry if that's the case but the fact is that the
Labor Party says that it's an unjust initiative, unfair initiative,
higher income people aren't paying enough, well here is an initiative
where higher income people pay on average three times the amount of
lower income households in the fuel excise,'' he said.

Mr Hockey's claim that higher-income households pay more in
fuel tax is correct in absolute terms but the claim the tax is
progressive has been debunked by research from the Parliamentary
Library, the Grattan Institute and consumer group One Big Switch that
shows poorer people spend a higher proportion of their income on fuel.

South Australian Liberal Cory Bernardi said the Treasurer's comments were a ''distraction'' and ''we don't need distractions''.

''Those in the lower socio-economic group tend to spend more,
as a percentage of their income, on transport and the basic necessities
of life than do those who are wealthier."

Queensland Liberals Teresa Gambaro and Ian MacDonald and NSW
Nationals senator John Williams also took thinly veiled swipes at the

The federal opposition used the three-month anniversary of
Mr Hockey's unpopular first budget, much of which remains blocked by the
Senate, to step up its political attack on the Treasurer. Treasury
spokesman Chris Bowen labelled the comments ''insulting to the
intelligence of the Australian people''.

With Latika Bourke