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Destined for the top – but along very different paths

16 August 2014 213 views No Comment

POLITICS

The Fights of my Life

GREG COMBET, WITH MARK DAVIS

MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS, $32.99

Hockey: Not Your Average Joe

MADONNA KING

UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND PRESS, $32.95

REVIEW BY ROSS FITZGERALD

When Greg Combet resigned from federal parliament last year, MUP’s indefatigable chief executive, Louise Adler, was on his case. She wanted him to write a book detailing his highly public roles in the Australian union movement and in the federal parliamentary Labor party.

The result may not be as sensational as Adler hoped, but ‘The Fights of my Life’ is certainly a revealing account of the major events in Combet’s working (if not his personal) life.

What is particularly fascinating in this memoir is finding out exactly how Combet , a stalwart of the Waterside Workers’ Federation , rose after 16 years as a full-time industrial activist to being an extremely effective secretary of the ACTU. And how he then became a senior minister in the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

While it is now widely known that the former minister for Climate Change declined Gillard’s offer for her to stand down as PM in his favour, Combet’s key roles in the crippling Australian waterfront dispute and the collapse of Ansett airlines, as well as in the protracted campaigns against unfair workplace laws and in helping achieve compensation for asbestos victims are spelt out in useful detail.

Combet has succeeded in his main aim in writing this well-crafted book, which he has produced with help from former Fairfax journalist Mark Davis, who has known Combet since 1988. Together they demonstrate why it is worthwhile to participate in the difficult career of being a labour movement and trade union activist, as well as being a prominent member of the parliamentary ALP and a key Cabinet minister.

While ‘The Fights of my Life’ should be compulsory reading for those of us fascinated by Australian politics, Madonna King’s biography of Joe Hockey, subtitled ‘Not Your Average Joe’, is far less successful.

It is, however, interesting to learn that Richard Hockey, the Palestinian-Armenian father of the federal treasurer, had a father who left home on the day that Richard was born. He was never seen by the family again. Although it is not spelt out in this book, the mysterious abandonment by Joe Hockey’s paternal grandfather hovers over the family to this day.

As a child, Joe Hockey wanted to become prime minister. This sense of destiny, and perhaps of entitlement, was reinforced by a Jesuit education at St Aloysius’ College in Sydney that fostered Hockey’s love of history and encouraged his debating skills, which had been honed by private lessons in elocution.

It was only while studying law at Sydney University that Hockey first became involved in student politics. He stood as an independent to become president of the Student Representative Council for 1986-87 and this eventually propelled him into federal politics when, in 1996, he became the Liberal member for North Sydney.

Although there are some fascinating titbits, including the fact that the Treasurer recently had 80 per cent of his stomach removed, this authorised biography does not really do Hockey proud.

Annoyingly, it has neither table of contents nor chapter headings, which makes reading difficult. Moreover King’s writing style is pedestrian and repetitive , an unfortunate combination.

Perhaps the most illuminating sections deal with Hockey’s unexpected defeat by Tony Abbott in a leadership challenge to Malcolm Turnbull, whom Hockey believes double-crossed him. Although Turnbull recalls things differently, King explains that Hockey is adamant that he had an agreement that the outgoing leader would not stand for the leadership if a spill motion was successful. Turnbull’s decision to do so had, writes King, wrong-footed Joe, split the moderate vote, and handed the leadership to Abbott.

Hockey expected to win the spill in December 2009, despite a handful of friends and colleagues , especially Hockey’s wily chief of staff, Andrew Kirk , urging him not to run. But, as King points out, they were very much the exception. Kirk wisely opined that Hockey hadn’t built a case of why he should be leader. “That requires some years of really focusing on becoming leader. Hockey had only just started that process.”

However, it does seem little wonder that, to this day, Hockey’s highly talented investment banker wife, Melissa Babbage, doesn’t trust Turnbull. Neither, she believes, should her husband ever do so again.

Indeed after reading this sometimes unsatisfying book, a key question remains: why should either Abbott or Hockey, who have established an effective working relationship, trust the still ambitious, silvertail member for Wentworth in any matters of political importance?

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University.

The Sydney Morning Herald, August 16-17, 2014. SPECTRUM, p 31

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