IAN KIRKWOOD: Joe Hockey’s candour edifying

TREASURER Joe Hockey’s new ‘‘authorised’’ biography, Hockey: Not Your Average Joe, by journalist and author Madonna King, is shedding new light on the tensions within the Coalition – the same sorts of rivalries, friendships and enmities that plague any political party, regardless of its colour.
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I’m part-way through its 300 or so pages, which start with Joe’s early years as the late child of an Armenian shopkeeper who married a Bondi-bred beauty queen and divorcee with three children.

Forced to grow a thick skin as the ‘‘fat wog-boy’’ of his school (as it says on page 22), Hockey used a mixture of debating skill and entrepreneurial nousto push his way through law school and student politics. He famously won the Sydney University student council presidency in 1987 with a campaign based on free beer, before entering Federal Parliament as the member for North Sydney in 1996, aged 30.

Joe Hockey’s biography.

Hockey emerges from these pages as a forthright character who calls a spade a spade, but there will be those in the Coalition who wish he had not been so frank with his biographer. In recent days, we have learnt Hockey felt betrayed by Malcolm Turnbull in the 2009 Liberal Party vote that made Tony Abbott opposition leader. We have heard how Abbott gave Rupert Murdoch a detailed account of his controversial paid parental leave scheme before he announced it without consulting his shadow cabinet or party room.

We have been told Hockey stands by the accuracy of the book, and, most interestingly of all, that he believes this year’s ‘‘lifters and leaners’’ budget should have cut harder than it did. In time, I won’t be surprised if that phrase – ‘‘lifters and leaners’’ – comes to dog Hockey as the Banana Republic dogged Paul Keating from his time as federal treasurer.

It’s a description I dislike very much, because I feel it’s aimed – by implication, if not by outright labelling – at the less fortunate, who, by definition, need more of the welfare that the government wants to rope in.

I see supposed ‘‘leaners’’ every day on my way to work; outside the Centrelink office in King Street, Newcastle, or one of the welfare agencies clustered nearby.

We might have had a laugh at them yesterday in the video report about the stabbing in Little Birdwood Park a few blocks west, where methadone patients gathered to socialise, and one woman said she was a ‘‘princess’’ who ‘‘didn’t do stairwells’’ (to sleep in) because she had a home to go to.

But these people aren’t in such situations because they particularly want to be. They are there for a whole pile of complicated social reasons, and if they are content with their lot, it’s because they learnt that change – unlike the song – ain’t gonna come for them. They’re making the best of a bad lot that’s a couple of planets below Joe Hockey with his parliamentary salary and his Blues Point Tower apartment on the Sydney waterfront.

Back in May, when Hockey and his colleague Finance Minister Mathias Cormann were snapped smoking Cuban cigars after wrapping up the budget, I wrote about the ‘‘age of entitlement’’ that still surrounded Parliament House, and the top-end rich who, according to a Fairfax Media analysis of income tax files, were paying far less tax than the average working Australian.

That’s the sort of leaning we could do with less of, together with the various subsidies to already profitable businesses; assistance that is logically at odds with one of the Coalition’s central tenets, the belief in smaller government.

At the same time, I have to agree with Hockey that New Zealand appears to have gained a jump on Australia when it comes to personal taxation, with the top Kiwi rate set at 33cents in the dollar, compared with the Australian rate heading towards 49cents.

Hockey was using the Kiwi analogy to argue that deeper budget cuts, earlier on, allowed the New Zealand government to get its budget back to surplus more quickly.

Things are apparently so good with our neighbours that net migration across the ditch is heading New Zealand’s way for the first time since, as they say across the ditch, Edem was a boy. Maybe if the Abbott government got a better grip on the multinational tax-minimisers, there would be less pressure on the ‘‘leaners’’ and room to give the ‘‘lifters’’ a tax break.