What Hockey is doing in London is seeing what a successful conservative government looks like. This has become standard practice for Australian political parties, and is separate from the government-to-government relationships of statecraft:
- The Liberals have done this since the early 1950s, when they saw Rosser Reeves' advertising techniques applied to Eisenhower's Republicans.
- Labor did not do this until the late 1960s, when Whitlam encouraged party officials to learn from the US Democrats and UK Labour.
- As Opposition Leader in the 1980s Howard sought and received lectures from Thatcher, but on going to Washington did not receive the same face-time from Reagan; instead, he learned how to make conservative culture-war and creating the appearance of economic rationalism as increased opportunity from the backroom boys who had taken Reagan from a perception as a lightweight and an extremist all the way to the White House. By the time of Bush II these acquaintances had become unbreakable bonds.
- Kim Beazley swapped notes with Tony Blair, to the mutual edification of neither man.
Abbott went to London in 2010 to attend a Conservative conference, where he famously declined the opportunity to visit Afghanistan. Less well reported here was his encounter with UK conservatives over climate change. There are two propositions with climate change: a) that global temperatures have increased and b) that this has been caused by human activity. US conservatives, from whom Australian Liberals have learned most, accept neither proposition (someone like Monckton is closer to the US than his fellow Poms in that regard). UK conservatives have to accept a), because the case has been made more conclusively by scientists and the non-Murdoch media to the point where denialism is not appropriate for mainstream parties of government; they quibble over b), but they are still well ahead of US conservatives in that regard (and hence of Australians). Abbott looked like a goose when he turned up bagging the very idea of global warming, and was firmly put in his place by leading UK conservatives.
Abbott has learned about as much as he can from conservatives in the US and UK. Hockey, however, has further to go. Like Abbott he is staying away from the madness in the US. Unlike Abbott he does not regard the UK experience as so strange that nothing useful can be learned from it.
The UK Conservatives had the classic problem of an exhausted party: nobody wanted Thatcherite hectoring nor Majorite dithering, but their supporters of whatever degree of commitment never wanted them to completely abandon everything they stood for either. After years of lurching this way and that, David Cameron found a way to represent Conservatives as having kept up with and pulled ahead of Blair while still remaining true to what we might call the essentials of their brand recognition. That eludes the Liberals at the moment, and if I was a senior Liberal I'd want to see it up close too.
Part of what Cameron does in linking back to Thatcher, and further back into the myths of UK history, is that rhetoric about self-reliance, pulling your socks up, getting to work and not complaining, etc. Hockey can and does use the same rhetoric to hark back to Australian conservatives past, too. In Hockey's case, it helps him reach beyond his moderate base and show conservatives that he's not some wet hand-wringer who might go soft under pressure.
From a purely tactical point of view, you can see why one or two Labor people want to interpret Hockey's speech as foreshadowing cuts to health and welfare. It's interesting that any appeal to economic rationalism must mean a reduction in those things: not to incentives given to other industries that can't seem to make a go of all those stated aims of employment and innovation, but which keep getting the largesse anyway. It was a bad look to question welfare so soon after describing his own income as "meagre", and had his relationship with he press gallery not been as good as it is they'd have gone him over it.
As Treasurer for his side Hockey has to be the bastard who says no to politically appealing but economically costly ideas. In doing so he needs a higher framework to appeal to, he just can't say no, no, no like Abbott does. That's why Hockey can stand against donations to the vehicle industry. Another reason why he can do so is his understanding of Australian business, which is probably the best of any current member of Federal Parliament.
Hockey is the man to question the assumption that the car industry is somehow politically vital. The 1981 Lynch Plan did little to save the Fraser government, and the much-vaunted Button car plan of 1985 did little to keep Labor in office. Yet, he did not prevail amongst his colleagues with his views: not with his economic rationality, nor with the accumulated favours and personal goodwill with which he is regarded, nor for having spent a decade in various ministerial roles regulating business in one form or another. His tackling of then-AMP chairman Ian Burgess, a lion of the Sydney business community and close to Howard, showed both his courage and his grasp of his facts to take on someone like Burgess. If there is a way to wean the vehicle industry off the public teat - using many of the same arguments you'd use against welfare to single mums and/or Aborigines - Hockey is the one to find it.
In one sense it is surprising that Hockey has not become the darling of libertarians. His record in this area is stronger than any Australian politician since Bert Kelly, who was never a minister. Hockey's record in cutting red tape and spending is stronger than Howard's; when Howard voted against the Lynch car plan in the Fraser Cabinet in 1981, he was hailed as a saviour and messiah by the economic rationalists and libertarians of the day. They gave him a free pass and continue to do so: despite Labor delivering lower tax-to-GDP ratios and more than matching the Coalition for deregulation and privatisations, the IPA cleaves to the party of Howard over that of Hawke, Keating and Swan. This is partly because Labor has its own quasi-intelligentsia and the IPA would find itself one voice among many in Labor ranks; given the state of the Coalition parties today the IPA is pretty much the nearest thing they have to a brains trust. In the land of the blind the one-eyed men have a singularity of focus that the binocular cannot match.
Like the libertarians though, the fact is that Hockey cannot carry the day among his colleagues. Just because he could cut corporate welfare doesn't mean he will, even if he had the chance. What that means is that when he says something, it can't be interpreted as likely Liberal policy despite his seniority and his supposed responsibility for Coalition economic policy. Soon after Hockey's speech and Lateline appearance, Arthur Sinodinos was hosing it down. Andrew Robb has the same problem, but is more constrained politically than Hockey; Robb might have a clearer macroeconomic perspective but Hockey has a base in the party that Robb lacks. Turnbull also lacks a powerbase but the mix of knowledge, courage and perspective he offers provides a depth that Hockey and Robb both lack, particularly in providing something on which to develop a post-Howard legacy.
The efforts of Turnbull, Hockey and Robb in meeting with people and throwing ideas around (not something other shadow ministers do), and the resulting backlash among "senior Coalition sources" means that the Coalition aren't clear about what ideas they want to take to government, or indeed why they should replace the incumbents. Abbott can't reconcile strong ideas; the pointlessness of favourable media coverage is shown here, where Samantha Maiden tried to make Abbott look like a victim of circumstances but only makes him look like a weak leader. I don't care what the polls say; this will come back to bite them when people are seriously considering who to actually vote for, as opposed to the idle chatter with which they engage pollsters.
That was Michelle Grattan's message in this article I linked to already; she likes it when each party sings from the same songsheet, and frowns upon one member of one party saying one thing while another says something different. Conveying debate and nuance isn't her thing, she wants to tell us that everything in Canberra is in its proper place and don't you worry about a thing; but when people speak out of turn, or do things like issuing press releases after 4pm on Fridays, then dear oh dear it makes life difficult and don't you know how we run things around here? Never mind the implications of those debates for readers and the citizenry at large, provided pro-forma appearances in Canberra are as neat as a pin and all the protocols are observed, then the nation cannot be anything but in tip-top shape.
Hockey protests that his speech was intended for a European audience, but why would they wish to hear from him? He voted against the measures that gave Australia its world-best economy, and in government backed policies that gave away windfall gains so that they would fuel a bubble rather than build infrastructure and social investments. For Australians, his speech is a nostalgia act for a lucky government rather than an action plan for a responsible one. Given recent bipartisan noises over the inadequacy of unemployment benefits, Liberal policies like the Great Big New Paid Parental Leave Tax, and certain political and economic realities pointed out by Peter Brent, you have to be sure that Hockey's tough talk is sheer wind, and given his failure at winning over his current set of colleagues it will not translate into policy any time soon.
There is one aspect of the speech, though, that Hockey probably didn't think about too much before launching into it:
I wish to thank my friends at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the opportunity to discuss an issue that has been the source of much debate in this forum for sometime - that is, the end of an era of popular universal entitlement ... It is ironic that the entitlement system seems to be most obvious and prevalent in some of the most democratic societies. Most undemocratic nations are simply unable to afford the largesse of universal entitlement systems ... Let me put it to you this way: The Age of Entitlement is over.This echoes Bill Clinton's insistence of fifteen years ago about the end of big government, but doesn't add to it or explain what's gone on in the meantime. Again, more wind on Hockey's part, but in the European context - and specifically the UK context - this statement reveals just another politician hungering for a perception of boldness over good sense.
It's not "ironic" (except, perhaps, in a Morrisettian sense) that entitlements developed in prosperous democracies. This arose as a direct experience from the Second World War. Wars have always been about blood, soil and honour: defending our families and ways of life from the Dreaded Foreigner. Hitler and Mussolini pretty much illustrated where that line of thinking goes. The whole idea of creating entitlements was to provide citizens a stake in the state that did not involve xenophobia, or land ownership (in the mid-twentieth century land was not the guarantor of wealth and status that it had been), or the sort of political power that threatened those who had it antebellum: there isn't much clout in being a mendicant, and people like Orwell and Hayek were clear about how disempowering welfare could be. By declaring an end to entitlements, and to any debate over same, Hockey doesn't offer any sustainable vision of what should take its place as far as a stake in the nation-state is concerned.
Hockey's talk about families taking back responsibility in caring for children and the elderly (and, one might add, the disabled) is galling in an age where costs of care are rising faster than incomes, and people's increasingly insecure work hours do not allow for time to provide that care; there needs to be a way for government to support people in providing that care that doesn't break the economy. He cites Asian countries as models for what he proposes, countries where citizens regard their governments as capricious and disengaged from their interests to an extent that would appall common-law countries like the UK and Australia. If Hockey can't find it - worse, if he isn't looking for it - then he's just another windbag offering non-solutions, not to Australian voters or Institutionalised Poms or anyone else really.
That speech will help Hockey reach out to people within the Liberal Party who wouldn't otherwise support him. It is a shallow and ignorant speech in many regards, the kind that might go over well to a well fed and watered foreign audience but which is of no help to the sober people who'd have to get up the following day and make it work. It might be the sort of thing that Barton or Menzies may have made to appreciative London audiences earlier in their careers, which weren't transcribed but described glowingly nonetheless. It should be regarded as intellectual mulch from which a future Coalition government may yet reap, not any sort of directions statement in itself.
When Abbott goes down the current front bench is going to look pretty stupid for going along with whatever he wanted; only Hockey, Turnbull and Robb have given any indication about what the Liberal Party might do eighteen months from now, win or lose. Hockey has set out his position but not how he will bring people with him, inside the Liberal Party or out, which is why this is so much journosphere nonsense. Complaints that those men do not toe the line only shows how poor is the process of setting that line, and therefore how inadequate is all that Malcolm Tucker bollocks about enforcing a common line, however stupid or misplaced.
Hockey likes the idea of having ideas; see how he basked in the aftermath of his most recent speech and his previous efforts on corporate law reform. There are payoffs in having a perception as an economically rationalist thinker, as Howard showed. However, Hockey should rightly be concerned that his ideas might make life harder for him than it is already - unless he gets a drastically different set of colleagues.