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Hockey Learns the Ropes

Click here to buy - A How To Book of SMSF's by Tony Negline
John Robertson

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey displayed his weaknesses more readily than his strengths when he addressed a hand picked business audience in Melbourne last week. History says Treasurers have a wobbly start before gaining enough confidence to consolidate their authority. Hockey is following in the footsteps of his predecessors.

On Friday, Treasurer Joe Hockey addressed a meeting of some 150 businesspeople in Melbourne ostensibly to boost interest in Australia's plans for the G20.

Before launching into his prepared text, Hockey made a few light hearted and apparently unscripted remarks. In particular, he referred to Peter Costello who was sitting just a few feet ahead of him.

Such is the mythology of Costello in these circles that Hockey felt compelled to make a personal comparison. He referred to Costello's record of eleven years as Treasurer and volunteered that he did not want to be in the job as long as that.

At the conclusion of the speech, the meeting compere ignored the 30 minute dissertation on the Australian and global economies to ask Hockey what he meant by his remarks about his tenure. Since he had just had the job for only a year, Hockey could hang around for a lengthy stay without ever challenging the Costello record but had unnecessarily distracted from his principal messages.

Did Hockey mean to say that he aspired to another position? Obviously, a tilt at the party leadership comes to mind. Was the job too much for him already? Was he having thoughts about leaving politics?

If Hockey had to say something about Costello, wouldn't it have been simpler to say he intended to beat the record. People would have treated this as a joke without any adverse implications about the Treasurer's psychological make-up or current politics.

This anecdote might be a piece of political trivia except for evidence that some of the most senior members of the Abbott government, Hockey included, lack an intuitive grasp of how best to present themselves and their policies.

Over the years I have consciously observed the styles of each of the Treasurers since Frank Crean. Paul Keating stood out as the most commanding. In similar circumstances as Hockey was placed in on Friday, Keating could speak coherently without notes for 30-40 minutes putting his views succinctly and leaving his audience in no doubt about what he wanted to do and why.

I had seen Keating as opposition spokesman for resources address a group of mining industry executives at a time of open hostility between the industry and the Labor Party and leave them impressed.

Whereas Keating possessed some natural skills, most lesser mortals must grow into the job. Very early in his tenure as Treasurer, I came away from a meeting with Peter Costello unimpressed with his grasp of the portfolio. Like most new incumbents, he mouthed some of the right words without fully understanding the linkages within a complex economy.

More recently, when Wayne Swan first became Treasurer his halting and uncertain public performances were commented on widely despite his acknowledged political experience beforehand. While not universally regarded as a successful Treasurer, he gradually fitted better into the role.

Remember, too, Julie Bishop who wanted to be Liberal shadow treasurer when she was first elected deputy leader of the party. She was dumped and given foreign affairs to minimise further embarrassment for the leadership of the party.

Even John Howard began shakily as Treasurer when he replaced Phillip Lynch unexpectedly during an election campaign in 1977.

Hockey is part of a long history of Treasurers trying to find their way. Generally, they have been overwhelmed by the task. Cairns, Crean, Kerin and Dawkins were pushed. Willis dropped the ball during the 1996 election campaign when he was conned into using a phoney Victorian government letter. Bill Hayden, one of the most highly regarded Treasurers of modern times, was only in the job for five months cleaning up the mess left by his predecessors in much the same way as Chris Bowen in the last days of the Rudd government.

History says that Hockey is more likely to fail than succeed. Interestingly, as a lawyer like Howard and Costello, he is more likely to be successful than if he had an economics degree like Cairns, Kerin and Dawkins although both Bowen and Hayden did. Only Willis and Kerin could claim to have worked professionally as economists before becoming Treasurer.

What will propel Hockey forward? A successful treasurer has a rare blend of policy nous and political skill. So far, Hockey has shown neither. It is still relatively early days but he probably only has another six months to show he is up to the task. By the first parliamentary session of 2015, Hockey will have had to show that he is on top of his portfolio and can get legislation through the parliament.

Persuading G20 finance minsters to raise their growth priorities will offer the best prospect of demonstrating his ability. Unfortunately, the goals Hockey has set for the G20 are laudable but highly improbable. He has asked every member of the G20 to meet in Cairns with specific proposals to boost economic growth by 2 percentage points.

Meeting the Hockey challenge will have to come from productivity enhancing measures most likely associated with reduced regulation and a stronger commitment from business to invest. Already overstretched momentary and fiscal policies will not be available.

If Hockey comes out of the G20 process having persuaded his peers to adopt his growth program, he will have marked himself out as a Treasurer with above average qualities. The Treasurer's ambitious program then faces another hurdle. He will not be overseeing it after 2014. Who knows what a Treasurer from another country may think is important. But Hockey will have done his bit.


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