Grattan on Friday: The government’s economic message needs a better salesman than Hockey

Joe Hockey’s difficulty in carrying the economic reform case was obvious this week. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

There’s an ad on TV that starts: “If you were me, what would you do next?” If I were Tony Abbott, I’d scheme to get a new treasurer without the existing one blowing me up.

Here’s one left-field suggestion: persuade Joe Hockey to become ambassador to Washington. Kim Beazley has been on extensions. Hockey would have the personality and skills for the job.

Now, to be clear – this is not going to happen. It’s just my political fantasy. All the same, it’s not a bad idea.

There’d be another byelection, but that price could be worth paying. Undermining from a malcontent would be avoided. If Hockey were neatly off the scene, Scott Morrison could be put in as treasurer with orders to get together a half-way respectable but not terrifying reform agenda for the 2016 election, and then sell it.

Malcolm Turnbull would be the more obvious replacement but if we’re walking in Abbott’s shoes, that’s beyond fantasy.

The business community has little faith in Hockey. As for the general community, the polls show that the man who a couple of years ago would have been seen as a likely successor to Abbott doesn’t even get into the current list of alternatives. Abbott is the government’s most serious handicap but Hockey runs second.

Hockey’s difficulty in carrying the economic reform case was obvious this week when his speech outlining the need for income tax cuts fell flat, because it was long on the problems but without solutions. It’s hard to see how he can turn around his low credibility, whatever he does. This year’s budget gave him a bit more shine, but it quickly faded.

If Abbott survives the Canning byelection without disaster, he really does need to get his team into better shape for 2016. But if we move from the fantasy to the practical, his options are limited. Anything drastic could be destabilising. His leadership remains fragile, despite his support from the right being strengthened by his tactically brutal handling of the same-sex marriage issue.

Abbott lived in parallel universes this week, as he toured picturesque Torres Strait communities and Cape York, with a media crowd snapping at his heels about Hockey, trade union royal commissioner Dyson Heydon, and the question of who really did initiate that request for Australian aircraft to operate over Syria.

Not only did Hockey’s tax speech invite fresh criticism of the government’s struggle on reform but Abbott was caught by the news his treasurer will co-chair a parliamentary friendship group to promote a republic. Hockey had neglected to keep the government’s number one monarchist in the loop.

Abbott suggested this had “kind of seeped out via a republican activist”. Well, no. It was announced with fanfare by Australian Republican Movement chair Peter FitzSimons at the National Press Club. “It’s basically drinks in an MP’s office,” Hockey was explaining on Thursday. Then probably not worth generating the fuss.

If Hockey is a continuing and long-term problem, Heydon is the centre of an immediate crisis, now refuelled.

On Thursday, The Australian reported that on August 12 – the day before Heydon pulled out of the Liberal-sponsored speaking engagement – lawyer Marcus Priest, who has been a journalist and a Labor staffer, had inquired of the NSW Bar Association about an alert it had put out about the speech. Priest expressed surprise to association staffer Chris Winslow that Heydon was appearing at a Liberal-connected function.

The story said Winslow, concerned the matter could end up in the media, emailed counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar, asking whether Heydon knew the Garfield Barwick address was connected to the Liberal Party. Stoljar replied: “I’ll raise that with him”.

On the basis of The Australian’s report, the ACTU on Thursday asked the commission for the correspondence and called for Heydon to delay his scheduled Friday decision on the union applications that he stand down on the grounds of “apprehended bias”.

New material released by the commission in response to the ACTU included Stoljar’s diary entry of his conversation with Heydon around 9am on August 13. When Stoljar raised with him the Winslow email that said the event was a “Liberal Party fundraiser”, Heydon responded by showing him an August 12 email from function organiser Greg Burton saying it was not a fundraiser. Later that morning Heydon withdrew, after saying he could not appear at something that could be described as a Liberal Party event.

Heydon has now delayed his ruling from Friday to Monday.

The latest information about yet another pointer to the function’s Liberal connections puts even more pressure on Heydon.

Heydon either quits looking tarnished, a deep blow for a former High Court judge, or pushes on in a hostile environment and with his eventual findings open to question. Both he and Abbott lose either way.

But a determined Abbott now seems less concerned about Heydon and more focused on the commission going on whatever happens with the commissioner. Reportedly, discussions have been under way about a successor, if it comes to that.

Meanwhile, Abbott is hoping to turn attention to his more comfortable ground of national security in coming weeks. Papers are being prepared for cabinet’s national security committee on the American request to extend Australian air operations to Syria.

The real origin of this move is clouded. Abbott says it was “raised with me by President Obama in a call that the president set up to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership”. But sources point to it being orchestrated from Abbott’s end. He has been anxious to widen Australia’s operations – as well as being frustrated for a good while at the Americans not making greater progress.

It’s all a matter of words and nuance, just as is the government’s consideration of the now-formal request. To talk about a “decision” having to be made is a misnomer. There are details to be worked out and gone through in the national security committee, but there is no doubt the tick will be given.

It’s almost as certain that Bill Shorten will go along with the plan. It has become much easier to get bipartisanship on war than on economic reform.

But despite Abbott’s talking up the threat from the “death cult” this is not where the electorate’s core attention is likely to be, going into an election year. Rather, voters will be looking squarely at issues in Hockey’s bailiwick.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Peter Varghese, here.

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