Hockey’s choice is between personal and party loyalty
Joe Hockey is about to make the biggest decision of his life.
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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