Grattan on Friday: The contrasting tales of Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop

Julie Bishop has shown resilience over the years, while Joe Hockey bows out. Mick Tsikas/AAP

This week Joe Hockey took his leave of parliament, after a career marked by unrealised promise and ultimate failure and disappointment. Soon, as ambassador to Washington, he will be working for Julie Bishop, the foreign minister who rose as a star in the government while the treasurer crashed.

Their contrasting fortunes form a salutary story about political talent and temperament, and the handling of success and adversity.

Back in February 2009, anyone considering their likely trajectories would have expected things to play out very differently.

Malcolm Turnbull was opposition leader. Bishop, Liberal Party deputy since 2007, had elected to be his shadow treasurer. But out of her depth, she had floundered and the knives were out, with Hockey coveting her job.

It was obvious Bishop wasn’t going to last in the economic post. She could resist the inevitable or jump on her terms. Sensibly, she did the latter. That enabled her not just to remain deputy, but to get the prestigious foreign affairs shadow ministry.

She would have felt humiliated, as well as angry about the undermining but her pragmatism showed a resilient and politically unemotional temperament. Hockey’s temperament was never as good. Pushed sideways in Howard’s 2001 reshuffle, he considered quitting politics.

As foreign affairs spokeswoman Bishop’s impressive networking abilities were obvious as she worked the missions in Canberra, getting diplomats over to Parliament House to meet Coalition MPs.

Meanwhile Hockey had a major setback. When Turnbull’s leadership collapsed in late 2009, Hockey was seen, and saw himself, as the logical successor; even Tony Abbott was willing to back him.

But then his judgement failed. The move against Turnbull had been triggered by his plan to cut a deal with the Rudd government over an emissions trading scheme. Hockey was in a dilemma – he too favoured an ETS. Indecisive, he proposed an improbable compromise – that Liberals have a conscience vote. He was first out in the subsequent three-horse race.

Fast forward to April 2012, and Hockey delivered his “end of the age of entitlement speech” in which he outlined views that two years later would substantially shape the Coalition government’s first budget. “A weak government tends to give its citizens everything they wish for. A strong government has the will to say NO!” he declared. The speech revealed a much more ideological stance than would have been anticipated from this leading party moderate.

Once in government Bishop, after a settling-in period, hit her straps not just by hard work and unrelenting networking but also because circumstances thrust her into the centre of events. Australia’s place on the United Nations Security Council – won by Labor – automatically gave her a higher profile than the foreign minister would normally have. The downing of MH17 in July 2014 then involved much Australian activity on the council – which Bishop spearheaded, winning widespread praise.

At home, Hockey was digging his political grave. Although in his valedictory speech he strongly defended the policies in that draconian 2014 budget – hitting at Medicare, welfare, higher education and other areas – it entrenched fierce opposition to the Abbott government from which it never recovered. The measures also failed in their purpose, because many couldn’t be passed through the Senate. Hockey had unacceptable products and was also a bad salesman.

In contrast to Bishop he often dropped clangers, as in August 2014 when, defending a fuel tax measure, he said “the poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases”. Bishop had learned over the years to be careful with words, although it is also true, to be fair, that a treasurer is more politically exposed on a day-to-day basis.

At another level, however, Bishop has been both tough and blunt. When Peta Credlin, Abbott’s chief-of-staff, messed with her, Bishop struck back hard, letting the interference be known. Credlin foolishly had taken on one of the few people who was a match for her.

As the deputy Liberal leader notable for surviving regime changes, Bishop was willing to be forthright with Abbott. Late last year she told him many Liberals thought Hockey should be moved out of Treasury, a view she reportedly shared.

The polling figures tell starkly how the fortunes of the two changed. The Essential poll on best Liberal leader immediately before Abbott toppled Turnbull in 2009 had Hockey on 22% (top of the list) and Bishop on 6%. In February 2015 Bishop was polling 21% (only three points behind Turnbull, who topped the poll) and Hockey was on just 5%.

In the early part of this year Bishop was touted as a possible replacement for Abbott and flirted with the idea of running if there was a contest. By September, however, the choice had crystallised to Turnbull versus Abbott, which Bishop understood.

There are many factors in why this tale of two ended badly for one while going (thus far) so well for the other. Hockey can justifiably blame Abbott for a good deal of trouble – his rash pre-election promises, and his actions and statements in government.

But perhaps the central factor comes down to an understanding of power.

Bishop has known when to push forward and when to step back (most recently in leadership ambition). She uses hard power (sometimes in battles with colleagues) while being a master of soft power (cultivating the celebrity image). And of course there is also the power of good performance.

Hockey as treasurer had at his disposal more power than any single minister apart from the prime minister. But he failed to understand its limits. He over-reached, not appreciating how much power the Senate, the voters via the polls, and his colleagues could mobilise against him.

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