The banter will turn earnest after Hockey's sunrise
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday October 10, 2009
Joe Hockey was at home when John Howard phoned his minister in January 2007, to offer him a new job. €śWhat are you doing?€ť the prime minister opened. €śChanging nappies,€ť replied Hockey, father of two.€śI have something similar for you,€ť Howard began. €śEmployment.€ť This dropped Hockey into the toughest job of the 2007 election, the minister responsible for Howard's stinker, Work Choices.It got worse.Howard instructed him in the limit to his authority in his new post as minister for employment and workplace relations €“ he must not soften the intensely controversial policy.€śTo quote Thatcher, we are not for turning,€ť Howard told him.Hockey took the job.This helps explain the current manoeuvrings at the top of the Liberal Party.It helps explain the puzzle of the party's leadership strife. How can the party possibly be having a leadership challenge without a challenger?Turnbull is in the political killing zone. His polling numbers are at a dismal level from which no leader has ever recovered. He has lost the confidence of the electorate and the support of his party.Hockey is the obvious successor. Yet neither he nor any other challenger is stepping forward to finish Turnbull off.The usual charade in these situations is for a plotting challenger to stand next to his leader poker-faced and lie through his teeth: €śI fully support the leader.€ťBut Joe Hockey was telling the truth on Thursday when he stood next to his leader and said: €śMalcolm has my absolute, unqualified support.€ťHockey has not been destabilising Turnbull. He has not been campaigning for his job. He has not been leaking to the media. He has, if fact, been supporting Turnbull.Because he doesn't want the job. Not yet. Why would any sane person? Kevin Rudd's dominance of Australian politics is so complete that the post of Opposition leader is a humiliation waiting to happen. The wait will end on election day.Hockey, at 44, can afford to wait. And, apart from anything else, his wife Melissa, the head of foreign exchange trading at Deutsche Bank in Sydney, is expecting their third child on Monday week. This is not a convenient time to be taking on an all-consuming new task.Yet Hockey is preparing to take the leadership nonetheless. He recognises that Turnbull's leadership is terminal. And even though it does not suit him to become leader at this juncture, he has learnt a powerful lesson from the experience of Peter Costello.In life, negative examples can be more powerful than positive ones. Howard's negative model for the Liberal Party was to stay in the top job longer than he should have.And Peter Costello's negative example was, as heir to Howard, to refuse to take the top job even when he could have.The Liberal Party lost two generations of leadership in a single day. It fell back on the hopeful but hapless Brendan Nelson, then Turnbull, whom Nelson has diagnosed as suffering narcissistic personality disorder.Hockey was appalled at Costello's behaviour. He saw it as a profound abrogation of the deputy leader's responsibility to the party. The Liberals are still recovering.Hockey determined that he would not allow another leadership vacuum to develop. The shadow treasurer is not actively campaigning for Turnbull's job but he is preparing to take in the expectation that it will fall to him. He sees it as his responsibility to the party.As he was when Howard offered him the worst possible job in the 2007 ministry, Hockey is, unenthusiastically, prepared to deal with a stinker.So while the Liberal Party may have a leadership crisis without a challenger, it does have a failing leader with a ready successor.Some years ago Hockey told a reporter: €śDad once said to me there are two ways you can go through life €“ you can observe pain or you can feel pain €“ and you've got to work out which one is better. I've sort of formed the view that observation is as powerful as feeling it.€ťThe time has come for Hockey. Today he is a close witness of Turnbull's pain. But soon it will be his own pain.It is not clear exactly when or how Turnbull's term will end. But once a leader is in the killing zone, unless Turnbull can pull off a turnaround of unprecedented proportions, these become details.So it seems that Joe Hockey will soon confront Kevin Rudd. This will pit against each other the same pair that shared the couch on the set of Sunrise most Friday mornings for five years.The program was the incubator for the popularity of both men, delivering them friendly, regular exposure to a large audience. On Sunrise it was flummery-light banter and political tomfoolery.Rudd and Hockey came to like each other. They were like Bert and Ernie, the Muppet room-mates from the children's TV show Sesame Street. Obliged to share the same space, they liked each other well enough even as they bickered endlessly.They still regard each other as friends, though Hockey has confided that he preferred the old Kevin Rudd from Opposition days, €śbefore he pretended to like rugby league€ť.As opposing leaders in the approach to an election, it will quickly become an intense, high-stakes competition.But what makes Hockey the obvious choice? And he might be willing to take the job, but is he ready for it?In the approach to an election, the Liberals will want to be led by the candidate with the greatest popular appeal. Polling in recent months shows that, after Costello, Hockey is voters' first choice as Liberal leader.In a July Newspoll, Hockey, with a score of 20 per cent, was preferred to Turnbull, with 16, and Tony Abbott, with 10. In a Nielsen poll in August, the numbers were different but the hierarchy was the same. Hockey rated 19 to Turnbull's 17 and Abbott's 10.Costello rated as well as Turnbull and Hockey combined, but with his early resignation from Parliament he has most emphatically ruled himself out of contention.And a Morgan poll published yesterday €“ which excluded Costello and therefore more closely resembles reality €“ gave Hockey 30 per cent and Turnbull 21, followed by Abbott on 17.Is Hockey ready?Although he projects a youthfully buoyant image, he has remarkably long experience, with nine years as a minister in the Howard government. Indeed, if he becomes Opposition leader, he will take the job with more experience as a minister than any Liberal Opposition leader since Billy Snedden.And what did he do in those nine years? As a minister for financial services he put in place the legislation that obliges lenders to give a full explanation of mortgage loans to their customers, preventing, at least at the retail end, an Australian version of the US subprime lending crisis.After the collapse of the insurance firm HIH he commissioned a review of accounting standards, initiating changes to the prudential supervision of insurance.As a minister for tourism, he created Tourism Australia, improved funding for the portfolio by a quarter of a billion dollars and reoriented the industry away from a pursuit of volume and towards a quest for higher profitability.As the first minister for human services he restructured the Child Support Agency and introduced Medicare claims in doctors' surgeries, among other reforms.And, of course, as the minister for Howard's dirty nappies, he ignored Howard's orders and pressed hard, and successfully, for a softening of Work Choices.Hockey, among other Howard advisers, persuaded his prime minister to introduce the so-called fairness test.This is a substantial record of sensible activism and political determination.And Hockey is doing more to prepare himself for the leadership.Among other things, he plans a series of speeches to set out his values and beliefs. He is to deliver the first, titled €śIn Defence of God€ť, at the Sydney Institute on November 9.His choice of topic bears uncanny resemblance to Kevin Rudd's essay for The Monthly, titled €śFaith in Politics,€ť when he was positioning to challenge Kim Beazley for the Labor leadership in 2006.Hockey has considerable experience with dirty nappies. His life is about to disappear beneath a mighty pile of them.