Opinion

Joe Hockey: 19 points behind ‘Don’t Know’

Armageddon is the biblical battle between good and evil that heralds the end of time. That time is rapidly dawning in Canberra. Backbench Abbott loyalists are now convinced the only option the prime minister has to save his government is to blow it up before his enemies strike again.

A hint of their thinking can be found in an opinion piece written this week by one of the prime minister’s oldest friends, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan. He wrote: “In deep trouble, a leader has two choices: play it safe, or play it risky. Playing it safe generally guarantees honourable failure.” He uses the metaphor of a rugby league grand final, the trailing team’s only hope with 10 minutes to go being calculated-but-serious risks. For the party room desperadoes, the cataclysmic battle between God and Satan is more what they have in mind.

They argue the prime minister has no real option for survival but to call out his putative rivals, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull. They should be sacked before they or their supporters strike again. One goes all the way back to 1983, when an embattled Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, moved on ministers he branded disloyal. It worked once. But four years later when he tried to blast out his deputy and three other senior ministers, the party room gave him the boot.

The proponents of this high-risk scheme claim that Tony Abbott’s controversial chief of staff, Peta Credlin, has some sympathy for the idea. Bishop’s scarcely veiled call on radio for Abbott to sack Credlin after the spill motion no doubt makes the proposition even more attractive.

What Credlin and the prime minister must know is that the same agitators who precipitated last Monday’s spill motion have a plan to strike again. This time the performance of Treasurer Joe Hockey will be the trigger. And almost on cue, as the week progressed, stories began appearing that before Christmas Turnbull was sounded out for the treasurer’s job. The offer, so the Fairfax papers reported, was made on behalf of the prime minister.

Turnbull says the prime minister has never discussed the treasurer’s job with him but he does not deny being approached: “I am not going to canvass discussions with my colleagues. I’m happy to tell you about what I’ve said but I’m not going to break the confidence of any of my colleagues.”

Abbott has handcuffed himself to Hockey’s second budget, with a plea to colleagues to give him six months to turn around his ship of state. Just as a sizeable chunk of the party room has lost confidence in the prime minister’s ability to change, they had much earlier given up on Joe. The Essential poll finds voters have, too. The man who came close to being party leader five years ago has slipped to 5 per cent support, 19 points behind “Don’t Know” in its latest survey of preferred leaders. His greatly diminished standing is entirely down to the prescriptions he laid out last May to repair the budget. Undaunted, he is persisting with the same agenda.

And this is where it gets confusing. Abbott and Hockey are sending conflicting signals on how the “good government” that the prime minister said started within hours of the defeated spill motion is going to be delivered.

Abbott seems to think a more realistic approach to the senate is a crucial ingredient. Soon after the vote that humiliated him, where 40 per cent of his party room indicated he had lost their confidence, he said: “We will not buy fights with the senate that we can’t win, unless we are absolutely determined that they are the fights that we really, really do need to have.” But Hockey sees there is no choice but to buy a fight with the senate. He told the party room: “If we junk unimplemented savings measures we will never get back to surplus.” He then put the senate crossbench off side by claiming, “Unfortunately, the Labor-controlled senate is just ignoring the challenges that Australia faces.”

That’s a ridiculous statement according to independent Nick Xenophon: “It was just hilarious he would say that. Or maybe he’s just out of touch with political reality.” Clive Palmer was just as dismissive: “The senate will never pass things that are no good.” He says Hockey should be sacked as a failure. “He puts up policies the people of Australia don’t want. He doesn’t listen to the community.”

Bill Shorten says it’s about trust, citing the GP tax, the $100,000 degrees, the pension cuts and the $6000 cuts to families. “Australians don’t like the fact that they’ve been lied to,” he says, “and they no longer trust the government.” Of course, it’s in Shorten’s political interests to leave a failing government leadership in place.

On ABC TV, Hockey was most reluctant to agree with Abbott that his budget had bitten off more than it could chew and was too ambitious. He insists it is the only path back to surplus. He rightly points out that not even stronger economic growth will do the trick.

While leaked government speakers’ notes advise Labor should be blamed for the worst budget mess in history, the facts are very different. He has been hit by massive revenue write-downs he himself did not forecast in his budget or midyear review. A total of $56 billion failed to materialise in the 10 months since the budget. This is the same horrible reality he refused to acknowledge contributed to his predecessor’s problems. But Hockey himself has been the architect of much of the fiscal fix he’s in. Unasked, he handed over to the Reserve Bank $9 billion. Then he’s handed back $12 billion in tax revenue to wealthy retirees and big mining and power companies. He’s now promising to give companies running small businesses a tax cut. He is refusing to dip into the $27 billion available by being less generous with superannuation tax concessions.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison is flagging a new families and childcare package, probably ahead of the budget, but he says it will appear when it will appear. Old habits die hard for the secretive minister. He is aware the way he intends to pay for it – a $3 billion tax slug on the country’s 3000 biggest companies – will be controversial. He’s now appealing to Labor – he calls it an open invitation – to back it in the same way there has been bipartisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. A rise in the Medicare levy, another new tax agreed to with Gillard Labor, is in the mix already.

The way in which Morrison handles this portfolio is being watched carefully. He is being touted as the treasurer in a Turnbull government. The fact he walked into the party room meeting with one of the organisers behind the spill motion, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, is seen as a giveaway of his ambitions. He says it was just a coincidence. But Morrison suffers from the same delusions as Abbott and Hockey. He, like them, forgets he’s in government and the acid test is on all of them. They can’t keep scoffing at Labor for failing to deliver surpluses and going deeper into debt when that’s exactly what they are doing and will be doing for the foreseeable future. Not one economist sees the May budget doing anything else but pushing out a return to surplus beyond this term of government.

It’s a hard ask to expect Hockey to re-engage with the public when he has become something of a figure of ridicule for his ham-fisted sales job. Remember a higher petrol tax not hitting the poor because they can’t afford to drive much anyway? His excuses and blame shifting may not persuade voters who have already lost trust in him and his prime minister. Nor will they persuade backbenchers who, in the face of bad or worse opinion polls in the wake of May’s budget, will start demanding Abbott sack Hockey or face the chop himself. That’s the plan and Labor is onto it.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen asked Abbott in parliament whether he still has full confidence in the treasurer. The question was prompted by the prime minister’s failure to do so at his post-spill-motion news conference. He answered, “I have full confidence in the treasurer; I have full confidence in my team.” Bowen points out this was the very assurance that was given three weeks before the hapless defence minister David Johnston was sacked.

Of course, dumping a treasurer would be another version of the Armageddon strategy. Hockey would not go quietly. He insists he’s the best man for the job. He says, “I have never been a quitter. And I’m not going to quit when it comes to the best interests of the nation.” But an embattled prime minister may be forced to see it differently to survive.

Malcolm Turnbull tried to dismiss this as fantasy football. What can be dismissed as fantasy is Julie Bishop’s bold assertion that spills are so yesterday.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "19 points behind ‘Don’t Know’". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.