Love is in the Canberra air this week as a sort of truce breaks out for Joe Hockey’s farewell. Magically, the bear pit of parliament becomes a back-patting, ego-fondling, air-kissing mutual admiration society. All verbal jousting, crowing, carping, double-crossing and character assassinating is suspended. Stilettos are sheathed. Even Dorothy Dix is jilted for Big Joe’s farewell love-fest.
MPs normally consumed by enmity and mutual hatred, stop up their venom and gall. Suddenly the House is a love-in of unctuous fawning and praising, group hugging and the blowing of wet, sugary, good-bye kisses as one of their number is shown the non-revolving door.
Part of the performance art is simply unemployment insurance. An MP’s life is precarious; it is Joe we farewell today but who will it be tomorrow? Yet a valedictory is a many-faceted gem, shining even into the abyss between what is said and what is meant in the Kabuki theatre of parliamentary relationships.
Joe’s leave-taking is a ritual in which the lamb is lionised; the sparrow hawks at the eagle; the porcupine is smothered in lotus petals. Praise is piled so high as to completely bury the recipient. MPs project their own strengths and deficiencies. Or show off some fancy footwork to disguise their animus for the loved one.
‘It is a big day in the life of a big man’, the silver-tongued Turnbull, Hockey’s own Prime Remover uncontestably attests, ‘One of the giants of the Parliament is taking his leave.’ Turnbull, talks up Big Joe, the man he helped throw himself out of a window a month ago with a speech to national television skewering the hapless Treasurer for not knowing his onions; ‘not giving the country the economic leadership we need’.
In the hallowed tradition of the parliamentary farewell, the lowly are exalted, the ordinary become extraordinary and good words are found for the biggest plonker – even if they are words like ‘big’ and ‘giant’. On Wednesday, the apotheosis of Joe is not without the odd, delicious, irony.
…Joe’s wealth and life of privilege…
‘You are no ordinary Joe,’ fawns Shorten who repeatedly rubbished Joe’s elitism, who claimed Joe’s wealth and life of privilege robbed him of compassion and blinded him to the trials of ordinary Australians. One of a kind, Joe nods, as only Joe can nod, agreeably, however fulsome the florid praise, however patently undeserved. He’ll take what he can get at this stage.
MPs fall over each other to sing extraordinary Joe’s praises. Sweet, kind, big-hearted and generous to a fault, Hockey is said to be the biggest and best Joe we’ve ever had. Yet all deftly skirt the elephant in the room of his massive job underperformance. Clerks scurry to check the parliamentary Kool-Aid and sniff the breeze outside the smoker’s courtyard. It is revealed that all the special wine reserved for the PM’s guests is missing, yet this seems to have been drunk at Tony’s table-top dance send-off. Both sides, however, are as high as a kite in Kabul.
Only Deputy Liberal Leader, Julie Bishop, her Foreign Aid budget slashed to ribbons is absent from the Hockey love-in, having had to ‘Daesh’ out on important business with a visiting delegation of petty non-entities from what is left of Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan, a pathetic mob compelled to do the rounds of their Australian coalition allies and other opportunists as they seek to add to a worm-infested veneer of legitimacy to US bombing in Syria and Iraq.
Doubtless, Bishop renders her Joe-bituary, fittingly, in emoji, although three Liberal MPs are sufficiently outraged by her poor form as Deputy, to contact Fairfax’s James Massola, protesting at the calculated slight, despite Peter Dutton’s warning last month that Fairfax was colluding with the ABC in a conspiracy to destroy the Coalition.
If the earth doesn’t move for all of us, Joe-love, nevertheless, goes off the Richter scale in Parliament. Of course, Big Joe gets his canoe paddle in, too, topping the obsequies with a heart-felt paean or three of self-praise. After all, greatness is something Joe has not only always aspired to; it is something he believes he is more than entitled to. Always has. That’s one of the reasons he’s being farewelled.
…His party is gob-smacked…
Hockey’s valedictory provides further clues as to how he orchestrated his own demise through timidity and inertia. Big Joe rattles off a list of changes he would have liked to have made – if only he had been given a chance. Big of him to let them know. His party is gob-smacked by all the things Joe opposed that on his last day he must tell us he secretly stood for.
Joe says he would have changed negative gearing, brought in means testing of private health insurance, cut tax concessions on superannuation funds and reshaped the GST. He even now has a good word for Labor’s NBN unless it’s a dig at Malcolm’s ugly, over budget, overdue fibre to the node baby.
‘Tax concessions on superannuation should be carefully pared back,’ Hockey finally gets up the courage to say. Negative gearing ‘should be skewed towards new housing’. Gunner Joe is shocking his colleagues with stuff he never brought up when he could have done something about it.
For the rest of us Joe will be an historical footnote; the best treasurer, the Abbott government never had. Of course he gave it his all but all we got was his big, boofy, blokey, folksy Joe-persona masking the painful reality that his job was a size or two too large for him. Sometimes, the job is just too big for the man.
From the moment he took up office, Hockey let the PMO walk all over him, beginning with Abbott’s unprecedented recruitment from merchant banking of John Fraser. The Secretary to The Treasury nipped in the bud Hockey’s flirtations with Keynesian stimulus spending in favour of a dull budget repair mantra. Some say it was all over then for the no-mojo Joe, bar the pipe-dreams.
Too big, also, alas, were his aspirations: Joe got the jitters instead of nominating for leader in 2009, an indecisiveness which may have cost him the top job. Now, the going is getting tough he is getting out. And landing on his feet. Even a dud treasurer is entitled to a soft landing when the jig is up.
…a celebrity politician…
But Joe cannot go without a blow of his own trumpet: it’s what he does best. He’s the best politician to have ever appeared regularly with Rudd on Sunrise and in his own way, he’s a sultan of spin. Left to his own devices he could have become a celebrity politician, famous for just being famous if it were not for his stupendous talent with spin.
Right to the end, Joe can still tell it like it never was; spin statistics like no other. He loves his story of his massive $68 billion increase in GDP and his 300,000 new jobs since his government came to power.
All those new jobs run parallel to a rising total of unemployed and a growing population. Among the 630,000 new people in Australia over that period, 83,000 were jobless, an unemployment rate for ‘new Australians of 27%. Under Hockey,
Unemployment rose from 5.6% to 6.2%, while those discouraged from looking for work and those who want more hours of work, the ‘underutilisation rate’ grew from 13.5% to 14.3%.
His GDP boasts sound good until we know that net wealth per person has in fact declined by $283 per person per annum under his helm.
As befits ‘no ordinary Joe’, the great man and distinguished statesman takes advantage of his farewell to remind an adoring parliament and a grateful nation about his own outstanding contribution to Australia and the world. Not only did he fix Australia’s debt and deficit disaster, not only did he split the lifters from the leaners in our midst above all, he crowed, his ‘death of entitlement’ thesis reverberated all around the world. ‘Unprecedented impact’ are his words.
‘Entitlement is dead’, Joe maintains: the age of personal responsibility has begun. In his case, fortunately, entitlement was merely napping until he could be fixed up with a plum job in Washington, a perk of high office and no less than his due. He may have even proposed the post himself as price of his going. To use one of the few bits of jargon he is notorious for, that’s real disintermediation.
…lower-paid working Australians…
Did Joe by-pass the middleman in bargaining his ambassadorship? Could it be that Joe’s cushy new job is the exception that proves the rule? One thing alone is certain. The age of entitlement was only ever over for the ungrateful non-coalition voting, lower-paid working Australians whose destiny is to pay for the pretensions of the political class.
Our charity began at his home. Taxes from ordinary Australians subsidised the Hockey household more in one tax-deductible night’s rent of his wife’s home in Forrest, Canberra than a New Start job seeker gets in a week.
The Forrest house purchase illuminates ‘Hockey’s mercantile genius’ to Liberal Party’s Ross Cameron because he bought for a song. After Joe spotted the property in 1997, he sent his father, Dick, in to have a beer with the elderly owner who insisted he did not want estate agents or lawyers to handle the sale.
In his negotiations, Mr Hockey snr did not divulge that he was a real estate agent or that his son was a lawyer. He wangled a sale for land value only. For many non-Liberals, Cameron’s heroic tale of Joe’s business acumen sounds grubbily close to obtaining advantage by deception.
Like all of the hoo-ha and flim-flam with which we dress up our pretensions, moreover, the story speaks volumes about the values of those involved. A party that would praise such a deal could sell its own grandmother. Any treasurer that could connive at such deception will never command the people’s trust. Nor did his habit of socking the poor and failing to deliver on promises.
… a much softer budget than he wanted…
Hockey’s 2014-15 Budget broke promises, raised taxes and brought massive cuts to state school and hospital funding; deferred cuts which are conveniently scheduled to take effect beginning in 2017-18, less than a year into the next Parliament. Yet it was a much softer budget than he wanted, his recent biography reveals. He could have done the tough stuff if only he’d been able, he suggests, a claim which sits oddly with his record of big expenditure.
Hockey was a big spender. He managed to boost the accumulated budget deficit across the four years to 2017-18. It exploded from $60.2 billion in his first budget to $116.5bn in his second, and final, budget. He liked to talk about ‘growing the economy’ as if it were some farmer’s crop. Yet his real growth area was debt and deficit.
For all his finger-wagging, shouting, anti-Labor theatricality, Hockey proved a dab hand at splashing the cash himself. Joe got us more heavily into hock and much faster than any of his predecessors. This would be fine if it were invested in assets which paid real dividends such as fostering renewables. But seldom has so much been spent so soon with so little to show for it.
Joe’s valedictory allows him to show more of the same blowhard self-deceiving wind-baggery that cost him his job. It also allows him to be honest about his inability to stand up to his PM who caused policy to be cast aside in the constant search for conflict. Hockey was prepared, he says to consider increasing taxes for wealthy superannuants but was vetoed by his boss who wanted to pursue the political scare-tactic of sloganeering on the ‘theft on people’s savings’.
In the end, however, the party that gave us Joe Hockey is still in power. His windy departure should give us pause to reflect on the outfit which gave him a job he couldn’t do and saw to it that he failed comprehensively. The same precious recession encouraging nonsense about needing to cut expenditure to fix the budget deficit is continued by Scott Morrison whose credentials to be treasurer appear at least as challenged by reality as Joe Hockey’s ever were.
We are daily bathed in the same warm, soapy bubble-bath of expectations that budget repair can only be achieved by lowering welfare for the poor and needy while being softened up for some increase in a GST which will most hurt precisely those whose welfare assistance is being reduced.
…a reality denying, climate change denying government…
Above all, moreover, the extravagant hyperbole; the over-praising of one of the weakest performers of all time in the Federal Treasurer’s role reveals a Coalition with its feet firmly planted in the clouds, a reality denying, climate change denying government which far from being an agile 21st century government is over-burdened with conservative interest groups and threatened by change.
The coalition prefers the fiction of fiscal austerity, despite its manifest failure overseas. Let it parade its cargo cult mentality of free trade as the solution to everything. Let it mutter about penalty rates as the solution to productivity. Let it collude to raise the cost and lower the standard of living for all ordinary Australians.
As seen on Wednesday, it is a government whose ideology and practice are so shallow, so unworkable, so morally and intellectually bankrupt that even a Joe Hockey may be put on a pedestal. As Paul Keating said recently to Kerry O’Brien, ‘the bar is not raised real high.’
In the end the fulsome flattery of Hockey reveals only the defective vision of those who would praise him and their mutual fear that in time, they too, will be found out by events just too big for their pretensions. Above all, they will discover to their cost the price of their arrogance. It never pays to underestimate the intelligence of the Australian public.