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Sunday, 12 October 2014

When Joe Hockey talks, Coalition colleagues wince

When Joe Hockey talks, Coalition colleagues wince

When Joe Hockey talks, Coalition colleagues wince








Australian Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey. Picture: Stuart Ramson
Australian Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey. Picture: Stuart Ramson



HICCUP Hockey strikes again! Just when colleagues were starting to
think the Treasurer might be getting his act together he produces
another gaffe.




Joe Hockey’s attempt to use national security to pressure Labor over his stalled Budget Bills was an appalling misjudgement.

The
Government has been at pains to secure a bipartisan approach to
military action against IS abroad and the threat of terrorism at home.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has provided the solid support Tony
Abbott wants.


Then along comes Hockey, foot in mouth at a news conference in Washington, and puts that at risk.

“If
Bill Shorten truly is honest about his commitment to deliver bipartisan
support in relation to our defence efforts in the Middle East, he’ll
provide bipartisan support to pay for it,” he said.


The alacrity
with which the Prime Minister hit the airwaves to declare Shorten “an
Australian patriot” showed how seriously he viewed Hockey’s lapse.





Shorten’s response was to express disappointment that the Treasurer
had “made the Iraq intervention a source of political point-scoring”.


To quote Abbott’s close friend, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian:
“The most sure-fire way for a government to make a mess of the politics
and, incidentally, the national security issues themselves, is to look
as if it is milking national security for party-political advantage.”


Abbott
knows his task would be harder, and a lot more perilous politically,
without Shorten on side. He also understands that bipartisan support is
important for the morale of the Air Force personnel and SAS troops he is
sending into harm’s way.


Friends say Abbott recalls vividly what
happened when Australian forces were committed to the 2003 Iraq invasion
without such bipartisanship. Departing troops were jointly farewelled
by then prime minister John Howard and Opposition leader Simon Crean.
But the message from Crean was that, while Labor supported them, it did
not support their mission.


Hockey, a very experienced politician
and would-be leader, should know all that. Small wonder that even some
Liberals once close to him are starting to talk about Abbott’s “Hockey
problem”.


Since IS atrocities and the domestic terrorism threat
began to dominate the news, the Treasurer has been less on display than
he was in the three months following the Budget.


There was an
incident a couple of weeks ago when deputy Liberal leader and Foreign
Affairs Minister Julie Bishop had to slap him down publicly over
suggestions that he was considering a further freeze on foreign aid.


But
for the most part, Hockey thought bubbles have been absent from the
headlines. That gave Coalition MPs reason to hope that the Treasurer had
regained some self-discipline and was quietly working to rebuild
credibility.


After all, Hockey has plenty of incentive to try to
lift his game. As a politician with a burning ambition to become prime
minister — just read his biography if you doubt that — he must be
dismayed by the way his standing and reputation have crumbled.


It
is generally agreed that the Treasurer has gone from heir apparent to
liability. Liberal MPs, watching him now, must thank their lucky stars
that the plan to make him leader in 2009 came unstuck.


An added
reason for relief should be the recollection that Hockey’s election to
the leadership would have seen Julie Bishop dumped as deputy Liberal
leader.


In contrast to Hockey, Bishop has emerged as one of the
strongest performers in the Abbott Cabinet. The deputy on Hockey’s
ticket was Peter Dutton.


There is plenty of discussion within the
Government about Hockey’s prolonged period of poor form. Explanations
range from sloppiness in his approach to poor political advice from
staff.


“People know he’s capable of doing a lot better,” says a
Coalition adviser. But a former minister claims: “He was never regarded
as part of the A team under Howard.”


THERE is no disagreement,
however, about the serious implications for any government if a
treasurer is underperforming. According to a senior figure in the
Liberal organisation: “Tony needs to address this. The Treasurer is the
second-most important person in the Government. It can’t go on.”


He
is not suggesting Hockey be moved from the portfolio. Rather, he says,
the Prime Minister “should perhaps involve himself more with Joe” so
that he can “keep an eye on things”.


Whether a busy PM has time to nursemaid a Treasurer, however, is doubtful.

Another
proposal doing the rounds is to lighten the Treasurer’s workload by
hiving off some of his less important areas of responsibility and giving
them to another minister.


Ultimately, though, the only person who
can fix the situation is Hockey himself. The obvious starting point is
for him to think more carefully about what he says before he says it.


Laurie Oakes is the Nine Network political editor



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