Joe Hockey is about to make the biggest decision of his life.

Joe Hockey stands behind Malcolm Turnbull at last Wednesday's White Ribbon Day function. Picture: Kym Smith

It’s a decision which goes to the core of his very being. His reputation for decency. His determination to be remembered not as a clever politician who knew how to get ahead, but a person who entered public life to make a contribution to the greater good.

It’s a decision which also involves one of his best friends – Malcolm Turnbull, who today cast the moral dimensions of the dilemma facing his mate of 20 years as he decides whether to run for the Liberal Party leadership. “Joe and I are very good friends as you know,” Turnbull said. “We talk a lot, we have very similar views on most issues, our families are very close, he is a good man.”

All of this is true. But it may not be enough to prevent Joe Hockey from rolling his friend at this morning’s Liberal Party Room meeting, where Hockey can argue that for the good of the party, and to block his Right Faction opponent Tony Abbott from sliding into the top job, he has not choice but to run.

If Hockey does run, his biggest first challenge as leader will be to explain the above rationale to a skeptical public. Especially if it is a double backflip, whereby he ditches his support for the ETS in addition to breaking his vow not to challenge. 

The moderate Joe Hockey has his critics within the party. Many on the Right nickname his “Sloppy Joe” and accuse him of inattention to detail, recalling his bumbling as assistant treasurer when John Howard was pushing the GST, and Hockey had a John Hewson cake-shop moment and failed to explain whether prices would be rounded up or down under the new tax.

His star turn with Kevin Rudd ahead of the last election as one of “The Big Guns on Politics” on Channel Seven’s Sunrise juggernaut cast Hockey for the affable and likeable guy that he is. But some Liberals wonder if it had the unintended consequence of elevating Rudd’s profile while doing no favours for the Howard Government.

Hockey won back some respect from colleagues when he took over from Kevin Andrews as Workplace Relations Minister in trying to soften and recast the Workchoices industrial reforms, albeit at too late a stage in the cycle to sheild the Liberals from an electoral backlash.

But the challenge before him now is much more difficult, because it has such a strong personal dimension.

Since the Liberal Party started to implode last Tuesday, the Shadow Treasurer has been the picture of loyalty towards his besieged boss.

In a rare touching moment in politics – and one which had as its backdrop the scenes of bastardy, bitchiness and betrayal which have marked this poisonous leadership crisis – Malcolm Turnbull kept his word last Wednesday to address a function at the Senate courtyard for White Ribbon Day.

The event came just minutes before the Liberals’ first leadership vote over the ETS stand-off, but Turnbull attended all the same.

And with Joe Hockey by his side, Turnbull took the pledge never to commit, excuse of ignore acts of violence against women.

In an aside after Turnbull spoke, I chatted briefly to Hockey about the leadership and asked him whether he would run against Turnbull.

He said he would not.

“I am not going to start my leadership career by selling my soul,” Hockey said.

It was a reference to the fact that, as someone who believes in climate change, this Liberal Party moderate was simply not prepared to reverse or soften his position on the ETS to win the support of party conservatives and seize the leadership.

In the few days since that press conference the landscape has been redrawn. Almost one-half of the party has expressed a total lack of confidence in Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership. Not just because of his support for the ETS, but his abrasive and belittling style in his handling of the negotiations.

The hard-headed Tony Abbott, who has declared his intention to run today, is not the preferred choice of most in the party.

As such, Hockey finds himself having blanket support from the Left and considerable support from the more pragmatic sections of the Right as the best candidate for the job. Not only because he is the consensus candidate internally, but the most electable candidate externally, the preferred leadership choice of a majority of voters in every recent poll.

The issue which Hockey is grappling with is Turnbull’s refusal to go quietly, or even to go at all.

As long as Malcolm Turnbull stays Joe Hockey remains locked into keeping his word not to run against him – and his office was even chastising media outlets early yesterday for suggesting the contrary.
Liberal MPs believe that Mr Turnbull’s pig-headedness in failing to see that his leadership is doomed has given Hockey enough moral cover to change his position – to say that, for the good of the party, he has decided to act on the wishes of his colleagues and also the public and restoring order to the Opposition.

It’s likely that this pragmatic line dominated the discussion when Hockey had lunch with John Howard at the former PM’s Sydney home on Saturday – and again on Sunday when Hockey lunched at his Hunters Hill home with his likely deputy leadership partner, frontbencher Peter Dutton.

But for all these meetings, one thing is clear – Hockey has not been gleefully engaged in these talks. He has done so reluctantly. MPs say this is neither the time, nor are these the circumstances, under which the 44-year-old former lawyer wanted to be catapulted into the top job.

Just six months ago, the only speculation Joe Hockey had to deal with was whether he was interested in making a run into state politics, where the NSW Liberals have struggled to find a compelling leader since Hockey’s old boss Nick Greiner was Premier in the late 1980s, to take up the challenge to a discredited NSW Labor Government.

On a personal level, he and his wife have just had their third child – a boy, Ignatius, born only six weeks ago – and Hockey has only barely returned to work anyway, having taken two weeks off for some rare family time after his birth.

It was reported yesterday that Hockey’s wife, Melissa Babbidge, has given him the all clear to shred any semblance of work-life balance by running in today’s ballot.

If that is the case, his wife’s advice probably won’t convince Hockey either. Aside from being a mate of Malcolm’s he is a devoted family man, who is currently staring into the abyss of a life he never ever wanted under such extraordinary circumstances.

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9 comments

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    • Sam of Sydney says:

      05:37am | 01/12/09

      Joe Hockey needs to learn that in order to be remembered as a good guy he needs to seize the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull and then delay the ETS untill after The Copenhagen Failiure. Otherwise, Hockey will be remembered in a way similar to Peter Costello ... Run Away From Leadership.

    • Boof says:

      06:29am | 01/12/09

      I admire Malcolm’s handling of all this.  And Joe has done the honourable thing as well.  Minchin looks like a manipulative, backward thinking dill.

    • Dan Cass says:

      06:42am | 01/12/09

      Good article, Dave.

      I think it is an important personal decision for all the Liberals, whether to stay involved in a political party that has no climate change solution on the table.

      As you know, I have always been an ETS skeptic but at least the Labor Party has a position, about which you can have a rational argument.

      How can any major party fail to have a clear position on the biggest issue in the world?

      What would a Liberal Party position even look like now?

    • scio says:

      06:55am | 01/12/09

      One week ago Abbott was berating Liberal colleagues to vote for ETS & support all the amendements his colleague Ian Macfarlane negotiated.

      Then he was on Lateline quoting from Ian Plimers book and Hadley report , even though he admitted he had not bothered to read either (or IPCC).
      Now he opposes ETS , having been a great advocate for ETS when Howard took it to the 2007 election

      How do hypocrites like this get to such positions of power in the Liberal Party?ent:

    • Frank Fearless says:

      06:57am | 01/12/09

      The ETS is bad economic policy that will cost Australians plenty in the hip pocket and do little if anything to help the environment.  Malcolm T will not win against Kevin at the next election (and probably not the one after either) so the coalition need to find someone to minimise the damage in 2010 and give them a real chance in 2013.  Joe is the only one with any hope of doing that.

    • John says:

      07:14am | 01/12/09

      As your article points out, for whatever reason, Joe has never really achieved anything in any portfolio he has held.  I have long wondered what Joe actually stands for, and it is becoming particularly clear that Joe Hockey stands only for Joe Hockey.

      NSW Labor offered us Nathan Rees as the soft face of a union managed government.  Federal Liberal seems to want us to buy Nathan Beazley as the member for North Sydney

    • Darren of Miranda says:

      07:20am | 01/12/09

      Hockey, if he has any integrity will not even stand. The Libs must oppose the 130 billion TAX that does nothing for the environment, jobs, or tax payers. It simply lines the pockets of treasurey and the carbon traders. MT out, Abbot in. Hockey is simply the MSM’s patsy who holds exactly the same positions as MT and will divide the party just the same, but most of the MSM like him because he leans left.

    • watty says:

      07:54am | 01/12/09

      Remeber the cacophany of questions from the Canberra Press Gallery and.the Labor Party on Howard’s NEW TAX the GST?

      Now only “deniers,sceptics, flat earthers” ask questions about Rudd’s new “GREEN TAX ” or ETS.

    • Nigel says:

      08:00am | 01/12/09

      MacFarlane says the ETS deal they’ve nutted out is the best outcome that will assist industry and retain jobs. He also says the Libs have a responsibility to listen to and do the right thing by the people of Australia. But the latest poll shows 80% of Australians want any ETS delayed until it’s better explained. So whose interests are MacFarlane and Hockey interested in serving? Big business or the people? Let’s be clear: they are prepared to concede ground to Rudd without offering a fight, for fear of losing Industry support. It’s about time the Libs grew cahunas and opposed Rudd’s tax grab, whatever the outcome. At least they’d retain credibility. And Hockey? If he gets in it will take a decade to restore faith among voters after such a ridiculous, hypocritical, ambition-driven backflip. The sad thing is, where is their next true leader?

 

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