Can Australia survive Treasurer Hockey?

Despite having 'Marvellous Malcolm' in the wings, Joe Hockey will hold the treasurership in an Abbott-led government. It's a reign his many detractors dread.

Until the end of 2012 it was relatively common to read in the papers, or hear expressed by the political and chattering classes, the hope that Malcolm Turnbull would sweep back to the head of the Liberal Party, turf out Labor and restore Australia's paradise lost.

Slowly, however, these same voices came to understand the ineffable logic of Tony Abbott's standing in the opinion polls – the party didn't need Turnbull to be popular.

And from there it was but a short jump to the hope that if Turnbull couldn't be king, perhaps Tony Abbott would make him treasurer at the very least, and let that Joe guy go.

Such theories, though pleasant to many, are fantasies. Not only has Tony Abbott affirmed that the members of the opposition front bench "can expect" to retain their portfolios if the Coalition wins government, but Abbott and Hockey are, according to senior MPs, extremely close – not quite the way to describe the Abbott-Turnbull relationship.

Hypothetically, of course, Turnbull would have certain advantages over Hockey.

First, his popularity among voters extends deep into swing-voters territory. While PM Abbott would hold the interest and affection of traditional conservative Liberals, Turnbull would keep the small 'l' liberals on board.
Both sides could bitch about the other half of the marriage – in the same way that Labor voters liked Keating's well-cut suits, or Hawke's beer-in-hand larrikin antics, but rarely both.

Second, Turnbull acquitted himself better as shadow treasurer than he did as opposition leader, and is well known for his steel-trap mind and business acumen that's made him a very wealthy man. On both sides of the house, most people agree he'd make an excellent treasurer.

But it is not to be. Although there might appear to be political advantage in broadening the Liberal Party's appeal among swing voters, the internal stresses such a move would create would be a disaster. Shadow cabinet, whatever Abbott and Turnbull's attempts to pour oil on the water, would be tense affairs, and would not deliver the quick consensus that Tony Abbott would need to effect rapid changes to the budget and major pieces of legislation such as the carbon tax and mining tax.

So no matter how long the odds, it would seem unwise to punt more than a few dollars on Turnbull as treasurer.

That means that increasing attention must be focused on what kind of treasurer Hockey will be – indeed on what kind of shadow treasurer he is already being. Most MPs and staffers contacted for this article have instant assessments to offer.

On the Liberal side, the view is that Hockey's gaffe-prone first few months are a thing of the past (take, for instance, his then apparently flimsy grasp of bank funding – see:
Can Turnbull afford to back Hockey? October 2010).

Hockey, say senior Liberals, has "grown into the role", and rarely makes major stumbles (though it'll take a while to live down his assertion that 'trend growth' in the economy is the same as 'flat-lining').

Hockey, say his colleagues, has an amazing depth of knowledge about the economy and fiscal policy that doesn't get much of an airing in the media where Joe's more used to playing the avuncular role he honed during his regular appearances opposite Kevin Rudd on Seven Network's Sunrise in 2006-07. 'Uncle Joe debates Saint Kevin' – and didn't voters love it.

One Liberal staffer told me Hockey's talent was for expressing complex economic ideas in plain English, which made him less of a favourite among the 'chattering classes' – the very people who hang on every erudite or witty utterance of Malcolm Turnbull.

On the other side of parliament, and even in the small pockets of liberalism on his own side of the house, assessments are less glowing. To them, Hockey's stumbles betray a weakness of intellect – an assertion usually, again, contrasted with Malcolm 'Renaissance Man' Turnbull's lively mind.

Hockey's ambivalence on climate change during the December 2009 leadership ballot is also attacked with some venom – Abbott stood in the party room for cancelling the CPRS; Turnbull for pushing ahead with it; and Hockey said he'd let shadow cabinet vote on it after he became leader.

Naturally enough, given the high emotion of that ballot, Hockey's colleagues pretty much ignored him. When he had been knocked out in the first round ballot, they then split almost exactly 50-50, with Abbott winning by one vote. So even if Hockey had somehow won, the way he picked his shadow cabinet would have been his vote for/against the CPRS. Not, say progressive critics, a strong minded approach.

But the strongest criticism I encountered was from a prominent economist and policy analyst, who did not wish to be identified, who thinks Hockey has already failed as treasurer.

That might sound a bit harsh, seeing as Hockey hasn't yet clocked on, but the argument runs like this: Abbott and Hockey appear to be saying different things about the fiscal constraints they would face in government, meaning Hockey has failed his most important job already – keeping his leader on solid fiscal ground and away from high-rolling fantasies.

In the past week, Hockey has been quite clear that Labor's compensation measures, brought in to offset the effects of the Clean Energy Future package (aka, the carbon tax), would not be needed under an Abbott government.

In the same week, Abbott claimed that pension increases and tax breaks Labor used to sweeten the carbon tax would mostly stay.

The public arena is not the place to have that kind of apparent disagreement. The economist mentioned above fulminated that there's no chance of cutting enough expenditure to keep all of Labor's gifts to lower socioeconomic voters without maintaining the carbon and mining taxes or increasing personal and business taxes.

That means, he says, that Hockey knows full well that the Abbott agenda can't be funded but won't stand up to his boss for fear of losing his portfolio to Turnbull or the equally accomplished Andrew Robb.

Okay, so that's only one economist's view. However, the media has been full of speculation and criticism for some time that, although Labor's dropped the ball on fiscal rectitude, an Abbott government could end up being far worse.

Nobody will know, of course, until the pre-election fiscal outlook is released on August 21. That will give a fairly independent assessment of the nation's finances against which to judge the Coalition's costed policies.

And there is also the wildcard of the Coalition's plan for a sweeping Commission of Audit to identify areas for cost cutting after the election.

What could be sweeter for any electoral candidate – promising many things, but holding a commission of audit to overturn some of those promises after the election.

There will be claim and counterclaim in the months ahead about a 'fiscal black hole' in the Coalition's plans – Hockey will continue to say 'trust us, we can fund it' and Labor will say 'trust us, they can't'.

But one thing is certain, if Hockey really did fail to keep shadow cabinet's policies within fundable parameters, the first term of an Abbott government would be a disaster. And there wouldn't be a second.

In that respect, Hockey's job every day between now and the election is to have the arguments behind closed doors and drive home the fact that John Howard's mantra – "underpromise and overdeliver" – is more important in this fiscal environment than ever before.