23 October 2015
by Laura Tingle
Leaving with dignity but a legacy of which they will not speak
The prime minister warmly farewelled Joe Hockey from the House of Representatives on Wednesday in just 788 words, not one of which related to Hockey's time as treasurer.
Hockey's successor, Scott Morrison, warmly farewelled Hockey using 1068 words which included just two sentences about Hockey's time as treasurer, and these only related to things that happened overseas:
"You showed your leadership as Treasurer on the G20, on the issues you mentioned with multinational tax avoidance", Morrison said. "You stepped up to the plate and were the voice of optimism in the world economy, the bright shining face on the opportunities for jobs and on the responsibility treasurers and foreign ministers have."
In their own way, these speeches – perhaps because they were replete with effusive declarations of affection for the 'big' man with his 'big' heart' – were more devastating than the scathing critiques of Hockey's treasurership that emerged in the wake of his valedictory speech.
Apparently the government could not think of one monument from Hockey's time as treasurer that it was prepared to own, even as it marked the end of a twenty year parliamentary career. Someone appeared to have prepared some speaking notes for the prime minister which lay ignored on the despatch box as he chatted affectionately about the importance of family.
No-one in the House on Wednesday wished Hockey badly at a personal level. But the more he spoke in his own speech, the more perplexing his view seemed to the MPs and others watching on. The more the treasurer spoke, the more he seemed to endorse the idea that he shared the former prime minister's delusions about what had brought them undone.
The Abbott Government "was good at policy but struggled with politics", Hockey said, a declaration that only seemed the more hollow on a day when his successors had announced a complete reworking of the 2014 budget's policies.
"I admit that we could have done more to win over third-party endorsements and to win over the Senate," he said. Oh, and "we could have done more to win over the Australian people".
The 2014 Budget was one "where the government had more courage than the parliament".
And on it went.
The speech continued to leave the impression that the global financial crisis had never happened and that everything that has gone wrong with the budget was Labor's fault. There was no reflection whatsoever on what the impact has been of all those Coalition tax cuts, written on resource boom revenue that was never going to last. There was no reflection on how devastating the impact of the Howard Government's middle class welfare measures on the budget bottom line, even as Hockey told us it was "unconscionable in 2015 to have non-means-tested welfare".
Not present in the chamber was Hockey's own prime minister – Tony Abbott – who has headed overseas to give the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London's Guildhall, for which he is being advertised as an "iconic conservative leader".
If there is something utterly admirable, utterly flawed and totally mystifying in Joe Hockey it is his continuing loyalty now to Tony Abbott, along with his incapacity in office to establish an effective partnership with the prime minister.
The nature of the two men's relationship is perhaps also the most damning reflection on the dysfunction of the Abbott government, on Abbott and ultimately on Hockey too.
Whatever Hockey felt was their personal relationship, Abbott and his office repeatedly threw the treasurer under the bus, in opposition and in government. Abbott's desperate offer of Hockey's job to Scott Morrison on the night of the Turnbull leadership challenge was just the last betrayal in a long line of acts of disloyalty.
Abbott's profoundly irresponsible and ill-thought through paid parental leave proposal – not even raised first with Hockey despite its multibillion dollar cost – was just the start, making it virtually impossible for the Coalition opposition to produce a credible costing document in the 2010 election.
Hockey kept hoping that, on winning government, the most crucial relationship in the government would be the one between himself and Abbott; that it would indeed be an Abbott-Hockey government.
Instead, the prime minister and his office repeatedly publicly humiliated or checked Hockey – on everything from Qantas to the release of the Commission of Audit.
It is hard to think of a treasurer whose authority has been so utterly undermined by his prime minister, whatever that treasurer's own shortcomings. What makes Abbott's treatment of his treasurer so bizarre was that it was so transparently against his own self-interest. While stubbornly keeping Hockey in the job lest he expose himself to challenge, Abbott was forever weakening Hockey's position – and thus his own.
Hockey's authority was already well diminished in the eyes of the business community and voters by this year, when he spearheaded several attempts to get a debate going on tax reform, most notably doing something about superannuation tax concessions.
In March, Hockey launched a tax discussion paper which threw open a broad-ranging debate on tax reform in the longer term – from changing the rate and base of the goods and services tax to increasing capital gains tax, reducing superannuation concessions, removing dividend imputation, and dealing with bracket creep by indexing income tax thresholds.
In April, The Australian Financial Review reported an interview with Hockey in which he canvassed the prospect of measures in the May budget on super.
A few days later Abbott killed the idea stone dead.
This was despite the fact the measures had been discussed by cabinet ministers as part of the budget strategy. FOI documents that emerged later in the year confirmed this. Abbott killed the idea despite the fact he and Hockey had agreed on the move at a dinner before Hockey spoke.
When protests were made to the prime minister's office about a volte face that had left Hockey looking ridiculous, the response from Abbott's chief of staff Peta Credlin, according to very senior sources, was "I often have to correct his [Abbott's] mistakes".
So Hockey's parting gift to the economic debate on Wednesday was to outline a whole range of tax reforms that should be undertaken, just ones he was utterly powerless to prosecute himself.
It is safe to presume that the utterly sensible reforms he proposed are likely to emerge from the Treasury's tax green paper – the forerunner of the white paper – or we can only hope so.
Hockey listed increasing and broadening the GST, lowering income taxes, getting rid of tax concessions, particularly for superannuation,and directing negative gearing to new housing.
Joe Hockey observed this week that "most people leave this parliament as a result of defeat, death, disillusionment or disgrace"." We all have to work harder to leave with dignity". If he feels he is doing so, it is no thanks to Tony Abbott.