What led to the grim-faced stumbles of one of the government’s key leaders? An examination of the treasurer’s plunge in popularity. By Chris Wallace.

Joe’s own goals

Treasurer Joe Hockey is still under pressure over the budget.

Joe Hockey can’t understand what’s gone wrong. It’s like there’s a parallel universe. In Joe’s world he’s the heroic figure who squared up to the debt and deficit crisis and delivered a budget to fix it, with good stories to tell on infrastructure and medical research to boot. He should be getting plaudits, applause. But where are they? What’s going on?

In the real world Hockey is the affable plutocrat who sounds as whiny as a Ferrari spinning its wheels while the budget sits stalled on blocks. It’s everyone’s fault but Joe’s, it seems. It’s Labor’s fault, it’s the senate’s fault, it’s the media’s fault, it’s even the business community’s fault.

What he doesn’t know is that there is considerable schadenfreude in the Abbott government’s upper echelons over what is seen as his ambition to succeed Prime Minister Tony Abbott with unseemly haste. Publication of a friendly political biography in his first year as treasurer has been read internally as a sign Hockey thinks he can replace Abbott within the government’s first term.

In an administration where no one can breathe without the say-so of Abbott’s powerful chief of staff, Peta Credlin, it seems paradoxical there hasn’t been intervention to lift Hockey’s game by installing a source of credible political advice to his office.

The paradox is explained by some as reflecting that Hockey’s erosion of his standing – through self-defeating displays of public umbrage – suits Abbott quite well. Hockey is seen to be eliminating himself as a leadership contender with behaviour that, while damaging for the government in the short term, will act as an internal political stabiliser for the longer term.

And Hockey is performing the useful service of drawing the odium for unpopular budget measures to himself and away from Abbott. At eastern suburbs dinner parties, “people are not so much talking about Abbott, they’re saying bad things about Hockey,” says one Liberal. “They’re saying, ‘I don’t know why Tony doesn’t just put Malcolm into treasury. It’d be a real circuit-breaker.’” Hockey’s parliamentary colleagues, however, don’t see him going anywhere and remain publicly supportive.

“I think all treasurers have had to deal with different circumstances and challenging problems, and Joe Hockey is absolutely up to that task,” says the parliamentary standing committee on economics chairwoman, Kelly O’Dwyer. She points instead to Labor’s little remarked upon role in the government’s budget predicament. “Clive Palmer and the independents are made relevant by the leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, abdicating any responsibility to clean up the mess Labor made in government.”

But Hockey’s budget agony is unlikely to last much longer, with a deal over its most contentious elements likely sooner rather than later.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s comments that negotiations behind the scenes are more promising than the Palmer United Party’s implacable recent statements suggest are correct. Palmer is naturally adopting the negotiating posture most likely to yield concessions from the government. Government sources point out that, as with the Future of Financial Advice reforms and the carbon tax repeal, absolute opposition will end up with constructive engagement.

“Clive is a businessman,” says one Liberal. “He’ll cut a deal.”

In the wash-up, the question will remain: Why did Hockey make such a meal of it? The tentative answers fall into three main brackets.

The first is that Hockey is an example of the “political class” that now dominates the Liberals’ parliamentary ranks at the top. The Coalition parties have long been critical of the contemporary Labor Party being dominated by individuals who have been nothing other than professional politicos all their working lives – first as staffers, then as MPs – but the same is now true of the Coalition. Non-political jobs on their CVs, upon close examination, turn out to be less substantial than they appear, and are mostly brief. They haven’t run things, and they haven’t done much outside politics. Out-of-touch policy moves are the result.

The second reason is Hockey’s narrow channels of advice. Hockey’s father, Richard, may have been a Middle Eastern migrant made good, but he had moved the family deli from Bondi to Chatswood by the time he married Beverley Little and they had Joe. Richard Hockey later switched from the deli business to real estate. Joe’s North Shore upbringing extended to a fine private school education at the noted Sydney Jesuit school, St Aloysius’ College. Then came St John’s College at the University of Sydney, followed for a couple of years by the toney Sydney law firm Corrs.

Unlike, say, John Howard, whose father was a western suburbs service station owner, Hockey’s upbringing did not bring him into contact with people doing it tough. He himself never did it tough. He also married well, with spouse Melissa Babbage accumulating significant wealth in a successful finance career that ended only a few years ago, when she left Deutsche Bank after the global financial crisis.

Babbage is perceived to have been an increasingly major influence on Hockey since her retirement, along with Grant Lovett, Hockey’s current chief of staff, who is a former finance executive with UBS. With his spouse, his chief of staff and his department all singing the same tune – without a countervailing, grounded source of real-world political advice in his office – it is little wonder that Hockey makes clunky policy moves that rebound in the electorate.

The third reason is Hockey’s temperament. “Joe has never really been seriously tested and he doesn’t like the pressure,” says one colleague. “I just don’t think he feels comfortable. He’s a bit shocked that they’re not congratulating him on the budget.” Says another: “He’s not looking good. And it’s worrying me a bit because he doesn’t sound happy. He sounds like it’s a big burden. You don’t want to convey that.”

The perception is growing, in short, that Hockey is unsuited to the pressure the supremely prominent and difficult job of being federal treasurer entails.

Nevertheless Hockey will remain treasurer for now and this current budget misery will become a character-building memory. The eastern suburbs dinner party set’s dream of Treasurer Malcolm Turnbull was never a near-term possibility anyway. Pressed to put someone new in the position, the economically literate and obvious ministerial success Julie Bishop would be more logical for the job, with Turnbull replacing her in foreign affairs and spending a lot of time overseas – just where prime ministers cementing their hold on power like rivals to be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 23, 2014 as "Joe’s own goals".

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Chris Wallace is associate professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business Government and Law, University of Canberra.