Joe Hockey Achieved A Lot in Canberra Too
Joe Hockey didn’t get the credit he deserved as a reforming treasurer so it’s good that he’s being credited as an outstanding ambassador to the US.
At his farewell party in Washington there were glowing tributes from former prime minister Tony Abbott, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and Australian businessman Anthony Pratt. All said Hockey not only had done a fine job over 25 years of public life but was one of the most likeable and straightforward of people.
Australia has always appreciated that Washington is one of those capitals where you can’t send a mere mouthpiece to represent your country. Our first ambassador to the US was Richard Casey, a one-time rival to Robert Menzies who finished his public life as governor-general. In recent times, our representatives have been former foreign minister Andrew Peacock; two of the finest public servants of their era, Michael Thawley and Dennis Richardson; the best Labor politician never to make it to prime minister, Kim Beazley; and now Hockey.
Next month, Hockey will be followed by one-time Howard chief of staff and former senator Arthur Sinodinos, who’s less well known as a public figure but is the ultimate insiders’ networker.
Although Washington was a consolation prize for being sacked by Malcolm Turnbull after the coup against Abbott, Hockey didn’t use it to sulk or lick his wounds. Instead, he worked overtime to persuade official America that Australia was one country in the world on which the US could always rely. Not many Americans were aware that the first US soldiers to go into combat in World War I were under Australian command at the Battle of Hamel; or that Australia was the one country that had fought beside the US in every war since. But that has changed, at least in Washington, thanks to the “100 years of mateship” campaign Hockey initiated.
Hockey was astute enough to realise that Donald Trump had every chance of winning the 2016 election, while other countries’ representatives believed the punditry that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in. Because he had played golf with Australian legend Greg Norman, who had played golf with Trump, Hockey could get Trump’s mobile phone number and pass it on to Turnbull, who became the first overseas leader to congratulate the new president directly. Turnbull subsequently had a testy call with Trump about the Barack Obama-negotiated refugee swap, but that was the first official conversation, not his first talk, with this personality-oriented leader of the free world.
Not too many ambassadors get to play golf with the world’s most powerful man, even with presidents it is easier to get on with and to schedule than this one; but, thanks to Mulvaney and Norman, it seems Hockey has not just had rounds with Trump but didn’t even feel the need to let him win.
Still, while diplomacy matters, and Hockey undoubtedly gave Australia considerable heft in Washington, because ambassadors are facilitators rather than decision-makers, his biggest contribution was as a minister in government. As human services minister in the Howard government, Hockey unveiled the first steps towards digital health records. And as workplace minister, he tried to clean up the overreach of Work Choices.
After 2007, while opposition leaders struggled, Hockey emerged as the public’s preferred Liberal leader, only to stumble spectacularly by asking Australians on social media to decide his attitude to Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme. Although Hockey was much less instinctively conservative than Abbott, the personal rapport between the two former University of Sydney rugby prop forwards meant there was little political tension between the then opposition leader and his main economic spokesman. Unlike most of Abbott’s senior colleagues, Hockey never complained to journalists when he didn’t get his way.
The 2014 budget was Hockey’s greatest achievement and his ultimate undoing. Budget repair had been a key part of Abbott’s mantra as opposition leader. With Treasury partially on strike because secretary Martin Parkinson had been given notice to go, the incoming government’s first budget was very much an Abbott-Hockey collaboration. With its emphasis on personal responsibility — via a Medicare co-payment for GP visits, learn or earn but no dole for people under 30, plus lifting the pension age to 70 and indexing pensions to prices rather than wages — it was a big pitch for long-term structural reform.
As Hockey said on budget night, in an echo of US president John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address: “Don’t ask whether this budget is good for you; ask whether it’s good for the country.”
An initially positive reception quickly soured, especially when Coalition premiers lined up to attack reductions in the rate of increase for health and education funding (even though these were explicitly flagged in the election campaign). Because the previous Labor government had “Abbott-proofed” most spending by shifting it from appropriation to legislation, many of the budget’s reforms were sabotaged in the Senate where Clive Palmer had the swing votes.
A whispering campaign against Hockey began by people who saw it as the first step to removing Abbott. And Hockey didn’t help himself with loose remarks about poor people not driving cars and by being photographed smoking, with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, a celebratory pre-budget cigar, which severely undermined Hockey’s “everyman” image.
Seemingly without realising its impact on the government, John Howard let known his view that Turnbull should replace Hockey as treasurer (as if this would have stopped Turnbull coveting a further promotion). Even a well-received budget for small business the following year was not enough to stop the slide towards yet another revolving-door prime ministership. But, like Abbott’s community service as a firefighter, Hockey’s highly effective American ambassadorship has largely rehabilitated his public standing.
And although Josh Frydenberg was the Coalition treasurer who finally announced a budget surplus, Hockey was its real author.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 41 books, most recently the political-sexual satire The Dizzying Heights (Hybrid).
The Australian, January 20, 2020, p 12.
It is good to be reminded that Joe Hockey, like Ross Fitzgerald, was among the few who said Donald Trump would beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election (“Joe Hockey achieved a lot in Canberra, too”, 20/1). As November approaches it would be good to hear their thoughts on the coming election.