With his reputation and confidence already badly dented, Treasurer Joe Hockey has been further damaged just two days before delivering his second budget.
Not only did Hockey have no part in the formal announcement of the voter-friendly A$3.5 billion child care package on Sunday. He refused to be drawn on its detail in an interview on the Nine Network, which came before the news conference but after News Corp, briefed by the government, had comprehensively reported the measures in its Sunday papers.
An appearance with Nine’s Laurie Oakes traditionally is the treasurer-of-the-day’s Sunday morning pre-budget interview. Hockey, pushed by Oakes over his reluctance to speak on child care, looked foolish.
All he personally was left to announce was a saving of nearly $1 billion from stopping people double dipping on paid parental leave.
Last week Abbott was forced to guarantee that Hockey would be treasurer at the time of the election after a report that the government whip had told the Prime Minister’s Office colleagues said the Treasurer should be replaced if the budget flopped. Abbott described the report as an invention but it was another blow to Hockey.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison was the one with Abbott at Sunday’s child care announcement. This is Morrison’s area so that was appropriate. But someone in the government – and specifically in Hockey’s office - should have seen how bad it would look if Hockey could not or would not answer questions about the package beforehand.
What would it have mattered if he had, given that the government had pre-empted its own announcement by already briefing News Corp? The alternative would have been to include Hockey in the news conference.
Morrison has got the absolute maximum exposure out of the way major policy initiatives, happily for him concentrated in his area, have been rolled out before the budget.
Child care has been released in several stages, providing multiple bites at it.
There has also been the big announcement about the dropping of last year’s unpopular plan to cut back pension indexation, which will be replaced by a tougher assets test, generally seen as a much fairer measure. All that was thoroughly briefed out in advance of being confirmed.
Morrison, who has been stressing that he’s consulted stakeholders and crossbench senators, comes across as the man fixing up some of the mess of Hockey’s 2014 budget.
One of Hockey’s major problems is that it’s hard for him to do a U turn, with any credibility, from the harsh language so associated with him. Remember, for example, the sharp distinction between ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’? It’s not the sort of way the government wants, or dares, to talk now.
Labor quickly exploited Hockey’s embarrassment on Sunday.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the “deliberate sidelining” of Hockey was “a clear signal to Australians, to businesses and to global markets, that the Treasurer is nothing but a passenger in our national economic debate. That’s a position that is simply untenable”.
Bowen said Australia needed to confront many serious economic challenges as well as the need for a credible pathway to budget surplus. “This requires a treasurer who is front and centre in the economic and budget debate.
"A treasurer who has been largely absent from that debate in the weeks leading up to the delivery of his budget is a major failure for the Abbott government.
"A treasurer who can’t speak to details of major budget measures on the same day as details are dropped by the government to national newspapers, just days out from the delivery of his budget, is a lame duck treasurer,” Bowen said.
Abbott has been going out of his way to stress this is a budget owned by the whole team.
When it was put to him on Sunday that people were asking whether this would be “Joe Hockey’s budget or Scott Morrison’s”, Hockey said: “It is definitely Joe Hockey’s budget and it’s the Coalition government’s budget, everyone’s budget”.
Observers say the stress that Hockey, always temperamental, is under has been showing behind the scenes. In the expenditure review committee recently, he reportedly snapped at Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.
Asked by Oakes about a particularly unflattering description of him by journalist Sam Maiden (“The poor bastard has been hidden away during the pre-budget week like some sort of pregnant, unmarried teenager in the 1950s”) Hockey said some people on the sidelines “like to heckle when someone is kicking for goal to try and distract the kicker. But this kicker is going to kick it through the posts”.
A much-weakened Hockey has a formidable task ahead of him to demonstrate he can kick that goal - or (as he might put it) to show that he’s one of the ‘lifters’ of the government.