It is seriously difficult to understand how the government has come to be as bad as it is. Yes, it is hugely tribal, its ministers are convinced they know better than anyone else, and it has a faith in “spin” that has dramatically underestimated the public’s ability to judge for themselves.And you expected what, Michelle, after 43 years reporting politics at close quarters? After six years of listening to them bellyache about the previous incumbents, did you never wonder whether they might be any better? When you have no idea what's going on every tale must be strange.
- Michelle Grattan, 15 August 2014
Even taking all that into account, Hockey’s Wednesday blunder is hard to explain.It isn't hard to explain at all. Hockey, and those who now comprise the government, have been spoiled.
Why – leaving aside such provocative language – did he think he could get away with just talking about ...
Ever since Tony Abbott became Liberal leader in December 2009, Joe Hockey has been able to say almost anything and be taken on face value. This is the politicians' dream: autocracies around the world spend billions on secret police, semi-official bands of thugs and vicious prisons to achieve the effect that Tony Abbott had secured effortlessly from opposition over the past half decade.
Hockey has become intellectually lazy as the glorious sunshine of an unquestioning media simply transcribed anything and everything he said, in deliberate contrast with the doubt cast over anything and everything Labor said and did. Swan could say that water was wet and Hockey would pooh-pooh it, and the press gallery presented the pooh-pooh as further evidence of superior competence at government.
Hockey thought he understood poor people, or had sufficient understanding to fob off questioning. It has worked for him time and time again. Before the past week or so he had not been seriously questioned on any knotty question of policy since he was a minister in the Howard government. Nobody told him he wasn't paying attention; he didn't become Treasurer by paying attention. He became Treasurer by glibly fobbing off whatever the then government said.
Abbott constructed the opposition as some sort of second house of review to the then government. This is what John Howard did when he was in opposition - whenever the Hawke government proposed something, he'd say "I'll have a look at it" as though he had the power to override them. He and his shadow treasurer Jim Carlton declared that government to be "the worst in history", "leading this country to disaster", etc. The difference was that the then press gallery thought about what politicians said, and if it was bullshit, they called them on it: people like Paul Lyneham and Laurie Oakes brushed Carlton and Howard off with "he would say that, wouldn't he". The press gallery today lacks that ability to think about what politicians say, but simply transmits what is said because direct quotes chew up wordcount and airtime.
The other important difference was that Wayne Swan was far more gentlemanly than Hawke's treasurer, Paul Keating, who eventually rendered Carlton as a kind of chew toy. This further discouraged herd animals in the press gallery from seeking his input into the big debates of the day. When Keating said to John Hewson that he would do him slowly, it was no idle boast - everyone in Parliament had seen it happen. Swan had been beavering away in Labor backrooms when Coalition governments just fell, federally in 1983 and in Queensland in 1989; Keating knew that internal battles are all very well, but nothing shuts them up like holding aloft the freshly plucked heart of a Liberal. Chris Bowen will never rise above Grocery Watch until he learns this lesson.
It goes against the press gallery narrative to say that Wayne Swan lacked a killer instinct, but Joe Hockey is proof and you know how much regard I have for press gallery narrative.
Joe Hockey has been carried into office on a sedan chair. I read the section of his biography over the period when I knew him (pp. 57-63), from student politics through the Young Liberals and into parliament. Madonna King writes about those steps as though they were foreordained, as a journalist would, rather than with the historian's knowledge that every step is fraught and contingent. His winning personality was put to use in smoothing over ruffled feathers from the backroom deals that brought him into politics; the Liberals have used him in a similar capacity ever since, to smooth over harsh decisions made by awkward backroom people.
Young Liberals would have set-piece debates about endemic global conflicts, but it took Joe to invite people from the ANC and what was then the Palestine Liberation Organisation to address us. That sort of initiative was what the backroom operators lacked. He sang dirty rugby songs with gusto, but could also talk engagingly about the social dislocation behind the rap of Schooly D (yes I'm serious). He liked the idea of ideas without necessarily engaging with them directly. His opponents in student politics feebly attempted to pin him down on specific commitments, and the Mack machine in North Sydney made the same mistake.
If he were in student politics today, he would probably back himself with his ability to win on campus and resist the increasingly discredited major party machines.
In the early 1990s the Liberal Party in North Sydney had been smacked around by Ted Mack's hyper-local machine, but it got its act together and Mack gave it away with minimal involvement from Joe. With the pro-Liberal momentum building across the country in 1995, even a piece of wood like Paul Fletcher could have won that seat.
Howard took a risk appointing him to the ministry in 1996 but it paid off. He was a capable Business minister, pulling together complex and binding corporations law, and bringing Sydney business doyen Ian Burgess down a peg when he sought government insulation from his own ineptitude. He was a safe pair of hands as a minister, and it was understandable that Howard would turn to him to sell WorkChoices. When he whimpers today that the business community isn't helping him sell his budget, this is the experience on which he draws - in recent years people like Tony Shepherd provided the Liberal Party with the ideas and policy-development apparatus the party could no longer provide internally.
The people who were most sceptical that Hockey would make a capable Treasurer were outside the press gallery pack, in business and among business/finance journalists. The press gallery assured everybody that he was a great guy, so good at batting away the convoluted compromises of the previous government's budgets and economic policies. When Hockey becomes unpopular after the budget measures, and gaffes like parking in a disabled spot or whatever, he is falling from a pedestal which the press gallery built and maintained for him.
Wayne Swan delivered six budgets with no surplus, and was regarded by the press gallery as a failure. Joe Hockey delivered one budget with five forecast, none in surplus, and until now was given the benefit of the doubt.
When he delivered the budget Abbott looked smug while Hockey looked nervous. As I said earlier, that budget came from the IPA and big-business cowboys like Tony Shepherd, not from anything intrinsic to Hockey. It's a sign of the meaninglessness of the 'moderate' tag, and of Hockey's ambition, that he embraced that malarkey, and overestimated his ability to get it through parliament and to the public. It was a grievous fault, as Shakespeare might say, and grievously is Hockey answering it.
Soon after the budget Hockey claimed that a young person could survive for six months without benefits because of "severance pay". That was when I knew he'd been cosseted for so long that he could not connect Canberra policy-making apparatuses to people, and vice versa, which is the basic task of the politician. He was always going to make a stupid mistake, one which revealed the sheer absence of thinking before, during, and after the budget, and into the foreseeable future. Peter Costello's comments about childcare in 2007 were reminiscent of Hockey on petrol costs today.
Does he really believe the rest of the world – including (John Howard’s) “battlers” with lived experience of petrol prices, as well as economists who love quintiles and the like – wouldn’t be onto him in a flash?Yes, because the press gallery and the Coalition cocoon insulated him from that until now.
The central conceit of the Credlin machine is that they develop ideas and that Abbott, Hockey et al just have to go out there and sell them - and that selling is a one-way, transmission-only process. The fact that the press gallery took every word the Coalition said as gospel, and disparaged every word coming from Labor, was an extra layer of insulation that appears to have disappeared overnight - and to which Hockey has to adjust fast, while his adjustments are played out in public.
Some are blaming weakness in Hockey’s office for what happened – he’s a couple down on senior staff – or even saying it’s about time for a ministerial reshuffle.'Some' might say that. 'None' are giving the press gallery their due for their volte-face on Hockey, it would seem.
As for ministerial reshuffling: well, there would have to be quite a few demotions if performance were the yardstick. A reshuffle after a year and when things are so messy would be a sign of panic, create bad blood and instability, and not necessarily improve the situation. The idea of moving Hockey would be inconceivable, however poorly he’s travelling.On what basis do you think that leadership will suddenly manifest itself? Is the leadership of this government not at its maximum capacity already? Now that Abbott has a taste for the foreign junket and the oafish blundering into other countries' internal issues, is he seriously going to ask Chris Pyne where the bloody hell is that report from Wilshire and Donnelly, or consult Maurice Newman about anything? Abbott is every bit as popular today as Julia Gillard was eighteen months ago, when everybody (but me) knew that she was finished. That lack of popularity limits his scope for 'leadership'; Grattan should know this better than anyone, if her experience counts for anything.
There is no one transforming solution to the muddle across the government. It just has to be worked at, minister by minister, issue by issue, driven by better leadership from the top.
This weekend Abbott will be on the Pollie Pedal, a familiar and comforting excursion. He gives the impression of a leader for whom the core task of governing and delivering has become very hard.This is why the Coalition has been so complacent about adverse consequences from its actions. Again, if Michelle Grattan's experience counts for anything, she should know - and convey - that a Prime Minister without a budget is very, very vulnerable. Besides, the Pollie Pedal warrants more scrutiny than it has received. The core task of governing and delivering was never within Tony Abbott's skillset, and Michelle Grattan and her press gallery colleagues were wrong to infer/ claim/ assert that it was.
This brings us to Hockey's apology, or lack thereof. In normal life you apologise for your actions, not for someone else's feelings or any other consequences. This, however, is a political apology; complaining that it isn't "genuine" is beside the point. Read it carefully; it is a classic Howard apology, where the apologiser is being rational and realistic while those apologised to are irrational and unrealistic. The idea of such an apology is not to mollify those who were (or who merely felt) wronged, but rather to kill the story. Having issued an apology (of sorts, however imperfect) you can now say to journalists who would pursue the matter that they should drop it and move on, and that they are being unreasonable should they refuse. The press gallery, being weak and shallow people, will comply - they always do.
One thing the press gallery has failed to notice is that any minister who stumbles will get no support from Abbott. Howard knew that his ministers reflected on him; even Peter Costello got some tepid support in getting the budget through. All ministers are now on notice that you get no help whatsoever from Tony, even if he's known you for thirty years. Abbott and Pyne hung Hockey out to dry. Hockey is perfectly entitled to regard both as pricks. Hockey's friends are right to regard him as a better man than either, or both put together. When Abbott's leadership becomes more vulnerable than it is, this will be remembered.
If this is how Abbott treats someone he knows as well as he knows Joe Hockey, then millions of people he doesn't know at all have no hope. We saw this with all those images of Margie-and-the-girls. He put his arms around them as though he was going to scrum with them. Any woman - even Michelle Grattan - who fancifully extrapolated those images to some general understanding of Australian women on Abbott's part must surely realise their error by now.
It does not mean the government's problems are over once the press gallery has been herded into the next paddock. Hockey is ostensibly visiting minor party Senators in the hope of getting the budget through. After last week, every one of them is in a position to laugh in Hockey's face and give him nothing. Thanks for nothing, Abbott and Pyne.
The trouble with this budget, and pretty much everything else that the government has done, is that it is a product of a government that has never had to understand the country it is governing. The press gallery exists to challenge politicians on this. The $7 GP fee, the Lasseter-like pursuit of a budget surplus, none of those measures relate to Australia today. Whenever Abbott visits the UK he disappears from view for days, and junketeering journalists following him don't follow up.
The Liberals have always had the business community and the IPA hovering in the background but they have had the wit to choose which policies they would take on and when was the best time to champion them. There is an inverse relationship between Liberal political success and IPA success at getting their policies up. Neither Hockey, nor any other member of this government - including often-mentioned backbenchers - has that discretion based on a deeper understanding of the country and the challenges facing it in coming years. Hockey has spoiled his visionary claims with his insistence on the 'budget emergency' and refusal to address revenue.
Hockey has no future in his current role. If he wants a future in politics, his only hope is to retire to the backbench and do a lot of reading, and make a few thoughtful speeches. Otherwise, he will stumble along until Abbott cuts him down and end his career in 2016, 20 years after it began so promisingly, angry and bewildered and misapportioning blame and credit. If he stays he will continue to be a punchline, the cigar-chomping blunderer who doesn't even think about people significantly different to him - let alone the effects his decisions might have on them.
The failure will be his, when it is a failure of the Liberal Party more broadly in not making better use of his considerable skills and talents, and in not effectively complementing (not covering) the sorts of shortcomings that do not prove fatal in far less capable people.
(See? It is possible to write about Hockey without mentioning his weight or his privileged North Shore upbringing.)