A couple of months after the Coalition’s first budget, when the Abbott government was still trying to figure out what it had done wrong by cutting spending in ways that affected sick people, pensioners, students, single parents, and families with disabled children, I asked a Liberal adviser if he thought Treasurer Joe Hockey was a liability.
The question was met with a 10-second silence, followed by a very careful answer about poor delivery, one of those non-denial denials. Such sentiment isn’t isolated in conversations with Liberal politicians and advisers about the treasurer. It’s hard to find people who are enthusiastic about his performance.
Two days out from what should be Hockey’s chance to reconstruct his image, the government’s communications strategy is undermining him.
Hockey has been absent from all the announcements on the central political plank of the 2015 budget: the $3.5 billion childcare package that will benefit 1.2 million families.
The story was reported in the Sunday newspapers, but Hockey ducked questions about it on TV yesterday morning, saying: “It is a career-limiting move to release something the same day the Prime Minister does.” It was surreal: a treasurer not being able to talk about his own budget.
Laurie Oakes asked him: “It has been released. It was announced to one newspaper chain overnight. The rest of us (have) had the announcement today, so surely you can talk about it?”. Hockey merely said: “I can say it is a multi-billion dollar package that is fully funded.”
Scott Morrison, the social services minister and Liberal party rising star, is doing all the talking on this and later appeared with Tony Abbott yesterday for a press conference to outline the plan.
Then this morning there was a damaging report in The Australian which said a plan to install Morrison as treasurer had been mapped out. It claimed there had been a power struggle in the budget formation with Morrison taking a leading role. Morrison has this morning appeared on Sky News to deny the accuracy of the report, describing it as “complete, absolute rubbish”. It’s one of those reports that might not be a talking point in front bars around the country but in political circles it has a significant impact and, at the very least, shows Hockey has determined enemies.
There are plenty of other warnings around for the treasurer, though. The Sydney Morning Herald notes this morning that the communications strategy, at worst, “has revealed a treasurer who has lost the internal leverage he once had. And that’s before the budget has been tabled.” And Sydney’s Daily Telegraph says in its editorial this morning that “Hockey is on his last chance”.
Hockey has a track record of putting his foot in it from time to time – most memorably when he said, in defending fuel tax indexation, that “the poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases.” He also recently came out with another “thought bubble” suggestion that young people should be able to raid their retirement savings to help them buy a home. The legacy of last year’s budget, so widely perceived as unfair within the community, lingers. Hockey’s job with this budget is to map some sustainable changes in government spending that will turn the fiscal trajectory around and point it back towards a surplus at some point in the future, while avoiding a repeat of last year’s hammer blow to consumer confidence.
In this environment, having other ministers sell key parts of the budget – using the different arms of government to their maximum effect and lifting Scott Morrison’s profile with families in the process – is probably a sensible communications strategy.
But it doesn’t reflect well on the treasurer’s position, and if all the goodies for families have already been announced, then Hockey may be left delivering all the bad news tomorrow night.
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