If there was a Most Improved Player award handed out at the end of this parliamentary year, it would have to go to the Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Even though he’s been described as a pale imitation of Peter Costello (who in turn was a pale imitation of Paul Keating), Hockey has been the standout parliamentary performer.
That’s not to say he didn’t start from a low base: the sobriquet ‘Sloppy Joe’ stuck for a reason. Hockey was an ill-disciplined shadow treasurer, not always on top of his brief and very bad at fudging when he didn’t know the answer.
But three months since the federal election, Hockey’s the only minister to look truly comfortable in his new role.
He seems to relish the highwire act, reeling off numbers and econo-jargon while simultaneously lambasting Labor and entertaining the Coalition troops with jokes that would have been considered gauche when he was shadow treasurer.
In a weird twist on the laws of physics, the incredible shrinking Treasurer has grown quickly into his role. And he may well be the only thing that will stop voters from marching on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to demand a refund for the dud government they chose in September.
It’s early days yet, but voters are registering through the opinion polls some uneasiness about the new Abbott Government. They’re not sure if what they got matches the picture on the box. Voters were promised a strong, stable and dependable government with no surprises and no excuses. Instead they’ve been surprised day after day with broken promises and a battalion of blame levelled at the unions (for the demise of Holden), the media (for not ‘understanding’ the Gonski backflip) and even the Indonesians (for not doing their bit to stop the boats).
The previous Labor government is being blamed for pretty much everything else including the Very Big Deficit, which Joe Hockey unveiled yesterday as part of the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). Hockey’s ability to sell the deficit as the product of Labor’s incompetence and not the Coalition’s profligacy will determine how the federal budget will be received by the Australian people in May next year.
It’s important to note that none of the Very Big Deficit numbers will actually be realised; the Abbott Government will take the Very Hard Decisions needed to get the budget back into black.
It’s Hockey’s task to recruit everyday Australians to support this course of action. “We will fix the Budget and deliver a stronger economy,” he said “but it will need a response that has the support and active involvement of the entire Australian community.”
Perhaps hoping to create the same approval for frugality that Kevin Rudd’s “this reckless spending must stop“ engendered in 2007, Hockey stressed that “this is an unsustainable fiscal position and the government is committed to taking the hard decisions to live within its means”. He said that given the choice between expenditure cuts and tax increases, he would choose the former.
Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Corman release the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook yesterday. Image via news.com.au
“If we want a dynamic, modern economy that delivers ongoing rises in living standards, the heavy lifting of deficit reduction will have to come from spending restraint rather than from a raft of new taxes.
“No country ever taxed itself to prosperity,” Hockey intoned. This is expectations-management-speak for “we’ll break promises and cut spending in the budget next year but it will all be Labor’s fault”. And this is despite having admitted the economic slowdown from the passing of the mining boom contributed to more than half the deterioration in the budget.
As is often the case in politics, what was not said during Hockey’s pronouncements on MYEFO could be more important that what was. The Treasurer recommitted to quarantining funds for health, education and defence, but not the manner in which they would be spent. Everything else is ‘on the table’, exposed to the gimlet eye of the Commission of Audit.
In a clear acknowledgment that opinion polls are biting more sharply than they should this early in the electoral cycle, Hockey concluded his MYEFO address by calling on voters to support the government’s march towards fiscal righteousness. “Over the next few months Australians will be asked to accept the decisions that help to make our quality of life sustainable.”
It’s highwire politics to vest community acceptance of what is expected to be a particularly tough budget in the resilience of voters’ trust in Hockey. But that seems to be the government’s strategy. One or two small stumbles between now and next year’s budget may be enough to relegate the Treasurer back to Sloppy Joe status.
But if Hockey continues to evolve into a strong and confident Treasurer, cultivating the respect and trust of voters, Australians may well accept that this budget is the one we had to have.
If so, things may start to get very interesting for the unpopular and distrusted Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
MORE ARTICLES BY PAULA MATTHEWSON
*Paula Matthewson has worked in and around federal politics for nearly 25 years, variously as a media adviser and lobbyist but now as a freelance writer. She’s been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009, and in 2013 founded the popular group blog AusOpinion. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog and tweets as @Drag0nista.