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Joe Hockey grooms himself for leadership – but only in government

Treasurer Joe Hockey says he would not spend another stint in opposition, if the Abbott government were voted out. AAP/Nikki Short

As Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme continues to be a millstone around the government’s neck, a new book reveals that he briefed Rupert Murdoch in detail on the plan before taking it to his party.

A biography of Joe Hockey also reports the then shadow treasurer was alerted to the scheme by Abbott but didn’t take much notice, thinking it was just an uncosted proposal.

Abbott, opposition leader from late 2009, announced the scheme on International Women’s Day in March 2010. When he had dined with Murdoch, who was in Australia the month before, “he gave the media mogul a full rundown on the scheme – supplying enough detail for Murdoch to later have his Australian-based editors briefed” on it. “This fact was unknown to members in the party room, who condemned Abbott’s solo policy-making on such a fundamental issue.”

Abbott and Hockey have different versions of the heads-up Hockey was given.

Abbott says: “Joe was one of the very few colleagues whom I discussed the paid parental leave proposal with … I don’t want to verbal Joe but he certainly saw the merit in it – that’s not quite the same as saying he enthusiastically supported it.”

Hockey recalls the subject as a “brief add-on” in a phone conversation, with no date or detail attached. “Joe says he didn’t think too much more about it, believing it was an uncosted proposal, not an opposition policy,” author Madonna King writes.

Soon after Abbott made what he described as a “captain’s call” and announced the policy, Hockey protested to him about not being consulted on the detail. It wouldn’t be the first or last irritant in their relationship.

King’s Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, written with the subject’s co-operation, highlights that once again (as with Keating-Hawke, Costello-Howard) we have a pairing where the Treasurer’s ambition for the top job is crystal clear.

Abbott and Hockey are firmly bonded in common cause, but it is a marriage of convenience. which could end on the rocks if circumstances pushed it in that direction.

As in the early days of the Howard government (when Peter Reith also had ambitions), two contestants have outed themselves in the battle for eventual succession. The eyes of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison are as firmly fixed on the ultimate prize as are those of Hockey.

In the best tradition of aspiring leaders, Hockey has apparently been staking out the territory since school days. When in Year 5 at St Aloysius' College he declared (in response to a jibe): “I’m going to be prime minister one day.” Today’s message is as clear, though more carefully (and realistically) couched. The matter of his future will be “in the hands of others”, he tells King.

Abbott’s chief of staff, the formidable Peta Credlin, assesses the horse race: “Joe’s absolutely a contender and he’s probably got his head above every other contender, but I think we’re a long way away from saying he’s an heir apparent – and he’d say that, too.”

The biography describes the makeover, political and personal, that Hockey – who’d already served as a minister through most of the Howard government – has undergone in recent years in preparation for high office in a new Coalition administration and (hopefully, in his mind) one day the top job.

In 2012 (under a fake name) he had drastic gastric surgery to deal with his weight. This was driven by health concerns, but also by politics.

“Everybody knows that fat people are perceived differently,” wife Melissa Babbage says, in one of a number of frank comments (another relates to the distrust between Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull). “People no longer see him as the party boy.”

Hockey, who originally came from the Liberal Party’s left, took steps to define and sharpen what he stood for, “colouring in the picture of who he was”, as King puts it. This had started just before Abbott became leader (in a contest that turned into a fiasco for Hockey) and reached a high point in his “age of entitlement speech” of April 2012.

The tougher, harder-edged persona is the one we see in government, notably in the budget, though he was not able to meet what would have been his preferred benchmarks. King reports that “the budget was much softer than Joe would have liked. He wanted changes to pensions made earlier and the deficit levy to net more taxpayers. But Abbott … was taking a much more cautious approach.” (Backbenchers, looking at the polls and hearing their constituents, might mutter “thank god for that”.)

Mid-career biographies are often double-edged for their subjects, exposing warts as well as rounding out the profile.

Hockey warts include sharp reactions when frustrated (he considered quitting politics because he felt dudded in the 2001 reshuffle), and a certain “whatever it takes” attitude when pursuing goals (in the Howard years “he believed there were few lines a minister couldn’t cross when it came to the department they led”).

On the look-out for main chances, there was one strange occasion when an opportunity for advancement either eluded him or was a trick of his imagination. Hockey recounts how Peter Costello told him (over dinner) that he was going to move against then leader Malcolm Turnbull. Costello said: “I’m ready to lead – will you be my deputy?” Hockey was more than ready - but Costello made no move.

Costello flatly denies the conversation. “I was never coming back. I was never doing deals with Joe or anyone else.” It is an amazing discrepancy, given we are talking about just a few years ago.

Like Costello in 2007, Hockey (at least on his account now) would not serve again in opposition. “Joe says that if the Abbott government is voted out in the next election he will not spend another stint in opposition. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ he says.”

Has he forgotten that in Costello’s case failing to hang around almost certainly cost him the prime ministership, while Howard’s willingness to bear dreadful dog days finally secured it?

In the account he has given King, Hockey has put a limit on what he would do for the party, which might not go down so well with some colleagues.