Hard tests ahead for 'soft' Joe Hockey

Joe Hockey's political development has been longer and more winding than most MPs. The relatively open-minded shadow treasurer will have to know what he stands for when he enters the treasury hotseat.

The Power Index

Joe Hockey looks set to have the toughest job in Australian politics come September next year. That's when, if current polls bear out over the next 18 months, he'll become treasurer.

It will be the moment of truth for a man whose stint as shadow treasurer – from February 2009, when he replaced the accident-prone Julie Bishop – has been marked by struggles over fiscal credibility and ongoing battles with the economic irrationalist wing of the Coalition: the Nationals and economic interventionists.

With an easygoing demeanour and a Beazleyesque girth, Hockey's long battled perceptions that he's too nice for the hard stuff of politics. Many in the business community regard him as a lightweight – "buffoon" is one of the harsher terms thrown around.

What Hockey definitely has is, for a politician, the dangerous quality of an open mind. Too open, say his critics – he's the man who famously damaged his leadership prospects by asking his Twitter followers what they thought about climate action. Senior politicians are supposed to be men and women of conviction, certain in their beliefs and hellbent on implementing their agenda.

But his banking reform campaign in 2010 reflected a willingness to consider different approaches to important economic ideas. It wasn't standard Liberal philosophy – he incurred the wrath of the banks and particularly ANZ's Asia-obsessed Mike Smith (who childishly compared Hockey to Hugo Chavez) for calling them out on their determination to become systemically-riskier growth stocks. But he had the backing of some of Australia's most-respected economists and was able to stir Wayne Swan – who found himself portrayed as the bank's loyal defender – into creating a (half-baked) banking reform package.

Joe Hockey is anything but the Liberal from central casting. There's the Armenian/Palestinian background, for starters. He did have a traditional moneyed Sydney Catholic education at Aloysius College and St John's at Sydney University, as well as a stint in student politics – Hockey was SRC president at Sydney in 1987 (and was accused of failing to aggressively lead student demonstrations for fear of endangering his Solicitors' and Barristers' Admission Board enrolment).

But his time as a student politician was defiantly non-partisan. It was only later that he declared an ideological epiphany and joined the Liberals, working as a senior adviser for John Fahey and gaining preselection for North Sydney. At that stage the preselection looked worthless – the seat was held by local legend and independent Ted Mack, who could have stayed there for the rest of his life. But Mack decided to bail out before he earned (another) parliamentary pension, and Hockey entered parliament in 1996.

While Hockey's progress was rapid, there remained questions over how much policy substance he could muster. He stumbled selling the GST in 2000 as assistant treasurer, and spent two years in the low-profile human services portfolio (where the ID card issue burnt him), but was then promoted by John Howard to workplace relations in a desperate, futile effort to soften WorkChoices before it destroyed the government.

In recent months, his biggest fight has been against protectionists within his own party who wanted the opposition to reverse its commitment to reducing automotive manufacturing subsidies. It was the first substantial fightback against the populist, big-spending policies that have characterised the Liberals under Tony Abbott, and it was successful. It suggested Hockey – who was last year humiliated over a proposal that one of Australia's premier tax rorts, family trusts, be targeted by tax authorities – was starting to gain traction within his party on a more economically orthodox platform.

Business and economists will be hoping Hockey continues to strengthen into the party's economic disciplinarian who'll keep a big-government leader and the Nationals under control.

This article first appeared on The Power Index on April 18. Republished with permission.