What Might Have Been

joe

Few politicians have lost as much as Joseph Benedict Hockey. In 2009 with Malcolm Turnbull crashing as leader it seemed the youthful Hockey was his party’s great hope for the future. Peter Costello had just left parliament Julie Bishop was held in low regard after a disastrous spell as shadow treasurer, Scott Morrison was then a little known entity and Tony Abbott was widely perceived as “too right wing.” Joe on the other hand was soaring. At this point he had been soaring for going on three years.

Ever since John Howard made Hockey the Minister for Workplace Relations he had successfully cast himself as the warm and cuddly face of Liberal Conservatism. His warm, jovial demeanour cut a sharp contrast with his predecessor Kevin Andrews under whom Workchoices had been rolled out. Hockey’s big break came as Kevin Rudd’s sparing partner on the Sunrise program where he held his own against Labor’s unstoppable juggernaut. But in 2007 Joe became far more than merely Rudd’s Sunrise opposite. He was everywhere: the genial, witty, moderate, pro apology republican was practically the poster child of a government desperate to prove its enduring relevance.

The Coalition lost the 2007 election but Joe just kept on rising. Like lambs to the slaughter senior Liberals attempted to knock Rudd down a peg with aggression and brutality and were rendered ridiculous. Only Joe had the tactical instincts to fight folksiness with folksiness. While Labor Ministers right across the spectrum became media darlings to a country besotted by Rudd’s honeymoon popularity, Hockey was the only in demand member of the Coalition. Light entertainment and hard news programs booked him night after night, he was the only member of the Liberals who seemed able to adjust to the shift in tone in national politics spearheaded by Joe’s old mate Kevin.

It was against this backdrop that Joe firmed as the favourite to take over the Liberal leadership from the struggling Turnbull.  Six short years later he has left parliament as a failure.

The poison chalice for Joe appears to have been the Treasury portfolio. Under the more restrained leadership of Turnbull, Hockey proved to be reasonably effective at prosecuting Labor’s record on debt and deficit but the Abbott approach to opposition crushed his credibility. Hockey tried to foreshadow the need for budget cuts if the Coalition was going to deliver a surplus but he was trampled over by his “shoot first, ask questions later” leader. Abbott promised to tax nothing, fund everything and deliver budget surpluses.  Hockey was given the unenviable job of reconciling these irreconcilable contradictions and was held responsible when he failed to do the impossible.

When the Coalition came to government and the time came good to make good of their commitment to return the budget to surpluses, individual ministers became economic NIMBYs. Of course, they agreed, cuts needed to be made, but none of them in their own departments. Only Christopher Pyne made a sincere effort to find savings in his department but the diplomatic ineptitude of senate leader Eric Abetz sees these savings remain suspended in the senate till this day.  Hockey meanwhile endures the blame for his leader’s dishonesty, and his leader’s alienation of the senate crossbench, and yet this only accounts for half the story.

Hockey’s public demeanour changed dramatically over his time as shadow treasurer. Prior to 2010 Joe was frequently identified as a voice of decency within the Liberal ranks. He wasn’t a ruthless, cut throat political animal like Howard of Costello, he was a jolly man who simply believed in individual enterprise and wanted to make it easier for small businesses to operate by cutting red tape and shrinking their tax burden. Like Turnbull, he appeared to have more in common with Kevin Rudd than he did with John Howard or Tony Abbott. In politics however every strength will be distorted into a weakness and soon Labor (although notably not Rudd) honed in on Hockey’s lack of venom as evidence of a lack of strength. “He’s a nice guy, but you wouldn’t trust him to run anything” said the then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and the attack stuck. Soon ambitious colleagues coveting Hockey’s treasury portfolio like Andrew Robb began using this same attack to try and blast him out.

Butted and buffeted, Hockey returned from the Christmas break in 2012 with a new found aggressive streak. Gone was the jocular Joe, the new figure was snarling and unsympathetic. Instead of presenting himself as understanding and gentle as he had done with such aplomb in 06-07, Joe told the voters to suck it up and take their medicine. It was out of character and unconvincing, it didn’t come across as tough love, it came across as nasty. He started saying things like poor people don’t drive cars and homeless people just needed to get good jobs. These were derided as gaffes but in all probability they were deliberate but poorly judged. They were intended to woo the economic dries and the hard right, but Joe just couldn’t pull it off.

Hockey threw away a politically effective media persona to curry favour with the Abbott/Abetz hard right bloc that then controlled the Liberal Party and it destroyed him. He was hectored and scorned by his Liberal colleagues for being too genial towards Labor when instead they should have urged him to cultivate and utilize this ability to transcend the partisan divide. Hockey could have been a national unifying figure,  occupying the centre, transcending the political divide  and making government more inclusive, instead he retires a failed partisan warrior: aggressive, forceful and defeated.

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