Joe Hockey quit politics yesterday, writes Ben Eltham. His valedictory speech illustrated his mediocrity perfectly.
What are we to make of the career of Joseph Benedict Hockey, former Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia?
The answer, unfortunately, is not much. A large man in life, Hockey leaves a diminished legacy in politics. In future histories he seems most likely to be accorded little more than a footnote, as a supporting player in Tony Abbott’s demise.
Politicians always say it is an honour to serve in Parliament, and Hockey said it a number of times yesterday. But it doesn’t seem like an honour when they leave as soon as political fortune tells against them. For that is what Hockey is doing.
To illustrate his defining lack of political perspective, Hockey filled his valedictory speech with whinges, whines and falsehoods.
“Our jobs have become much more challenging over the years,” he moaned, “with the advent of a ‘need it now’ culture, which has been backed by the unending and often unreasonable demands of social media.”
There is no evidence for this claim – which is not surprising. Hockey always struggled when it comes to facts and figures. Is being Treasurer of Australia in 2015 really harder than in 2008, when Wayne Swan was faced with a global banking meltdown, or 1998, when Peter Costello was faced with the Asian financial crisis, or 1942, when Ben Chifley had to marshal a wartime economy? I don’t think so.
“The 24-hour news cycle has changed politics forever,” Hockey continued. “It is now far more difficult to examine and debate policies in a measured way.” You heard it: the man who dumped one of the nastiest budgets in Australian history onto Australian voters, with almost no prior examination or debate, is now complaining about the 24-hour news cycle.
Hockey then made the gobsmacking claim that his notorious speech to a group of London conservatives, “The End of the Age of Entitlement”, will go down in history as the most influential speech in two decades. Hockey thinks his bizarre homily to cutting off people’s pensions was more influential than Paul Keating’s Redfern address of 1992, John Howard’s “We’ll decide” campaign speech of 2001, or Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. It’s hard to know what to call this, other than delusion.
Then there was some embarrassing Latin, as Hockey quoted the phrase made famous by Christopher Wren’s plaque on St Paul’s Cathedral, “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (if you seek a monument, look around).
Hockey’s use of the aphorism was characteristic. On the face of things it sounded impressive. But think about it for longer than a minute, and it made no sense. Look around? Hockey did not build or design Parliament House. Indeed, as Treasurer, he scarcely built anything at all: Hockey presided over dramatic falls in public infrastructure investment.
But a ponderous quote in Latin is perfectly in keeping with Hockey as a politician: half-smart, but ultimately superficial. It was just another example of the arrogance that led him to make quips about poor people not driving cars.
The listener seeking a monument for Joe Hockey would be well advised to look at the Budget Papers instead. These show a deficit larger than the deficit Hockey inherited from Labor. Despite all the rhetoric about debt and deficit, Hockey blew out both. He spent more than Wayne Swan did, and borrowed more. He ran up a $48.5 billion deficit in 2014, and a $37.9 billion deficit this year. Only some of this was due to revenue write-downs. Hockey talked the talk before gaining office; he failed on his own test of reining in spending.
Even more than Tony Abbott, Hockey seems completely unable to grasp the reasons for his fall from office.
“The Abbott government was good at policy, but struggled at politics,” Hockey complained. Wrong again. The Abbott government was bad at both. It wasn’t just that Hockey was a woeful economic salesman, or that Abbott was a weird and increasingly paranoid leader. The policies the Abbott government announced – many of them Hockey’s – were deeply unpopular.
Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey won in 2013 with a well-defined set of election promises. The Liberal campaign book, Our Plan, ran to 52 pages. Hockey’s face is on the front cover.
But Our Plan was never implemented. The Abbott government started breaking promises almost as soon as it was elected.
The climax of this betrayal – and the thing that Hockey will really be remembered for – was the 2014 budget. It was one of the meanest and nastiest economic statements in Australian history. Corporations were rewarded with tax breaks, while the poor, the sick, and the unemployed were punished.
Unsurprisingly, voters hated it. Support for the Coalition collapsed after May 2014. It didn’t recover until the Liberal Party jettisoned both Abbott and Hockey.
The most unpopular budget in a generation: that will be Joe Hockey’s real legacy. A meaner, nastier and less equal Australia will be the result of his policies. Voters will at least be glad that some of the worst, such as the GP co-payment and the 20 per cent cut to university funding, were never implemented.
Such failures were a mark of Hockey’s tenure. He failed at most of the things he set out to achieve as Treasurer. He failed to cut government spending: at 25.9 per cent of GDP, government spending is higher now than when Labor left office.
Hockey failed at pension and benefits reform. Proposals like denying under 30-year olds the dole for six months were punitive and unfair, and were thus rejected by the Senate. Family Tax Benefits cuts also hurt poor households the most; they too look set to be abandoned by Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. But the biggest entitlement of all – superannuation tax breaks – were left completely untouched.
Hockey also failed to implement the Medical Research Future Fund. The Fund was meant to use savings from health spending to invest in medical research. But it was harnessed to a politically disastrous co-payment for visiting the doctor. As a result, it languished in the Senate. When Hockey left the building yesterday, the Fund had not dispensed a single dollar to medical researchers. In fact, the current round of National Health and Medical Research Fund grants will have the lowest success rate ever.
Finally, Hockey failed when it came to the economy. Australia’s economic growth stagnated under his management, limping along at a rate that saw unemployment slowly increase.
Nor did Hockey do anything to improve Australia’s medium- and long-term economic performance. He cut funding to research and innovation, and tried to cut funding to universities. He was a key policymaker in the government that set out to destroy Australia’s renewable energy industry. He presided over the closure of auto manufacturing in this country. His only successes, a series of free trade agreements, are of dubious value, and are in any case the achievements of Andrew Robb.
Hockey ended his speech with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s The Strenuous Life. It was classic Hockey: a grand sentiment, but factually wrong. Hockey’s life has not been particularly strenuous. He grew up in comfortable surrounds, and then married a rich merchant banker. Now he leaves politics at the age of 50, with many more years of service left to render. The very fact that he is quitting, mid-term, tells us much about the moral stature of the man.
The contrast with Malcolm Turnbull is sharp. After losing the Liberal leadership, Turnbull thought about quitting. But he stayed on, serving his party and his electorate. Now he is the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Hockey is taking his bat and ball and going home.
I’ll leave the last word to Fairfax’s Michael Pascoe, who wrote a brutal piece about the outgoing Treasurer today. “Hockey’s farewell speech was largely rubbish, confirming that he had never been up to the job.”