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Abbott and Hockey need to bind tightly in scrum

4 July 2011 1,059 views No Comment

A FORTNIGHT ago, when Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey stood side by side with ex- Wallaby Geoff Didier at a Canberra steel factory, it was only natural that their conversation turned quickly to their love of rugby. All three have a love of the game.

Two of them, Abbott and Hockey, could only dream of playing in the green and gold. But it didn’t stop them both trying. There’s a revealing tale about one of the pair’s first meetings. Abbott as coach of the Sydney University rugby team; Hockey as a budding prop forward. It was at practice one afternoon where an ambitious Hockey’s goading finally pushed the coach too far. What followed is a little hazy and while recollections of what went on vary, the end result of their encounter was: coach 1, pupil 0.

For a while after that time, Abbott’s and Hockey’s careers followed different paths, before returning to a common goal. But if their uni rugby moment taught them anything, it’s that just like rugby, politics ought to be a team game.

Both men are now standing for selection for a much higher prize wresting federal government from the Australian Labor Party and both know their alliance built over the past 25 years will be crucial to their success. There cannot be a cigarette paper of difference between them if the Liberals are to return to the government benches.

Both received a Jesuit education in Sydney before going on to study law at Sydney University with distinction. At the same time their political skills saw them both serve as successful student union leaders. After university, Abbott worked as a journalist, then as political adviser to John Hewson, while Hockey first worked as a corporate lawyer, before a stint as policy director to NSW Liberal premier John Fahey.

It was clear their careers would soon meet again.

In 1994, Abbott entered Parliament after winning a by-election for the northern Sydney seat of Warringah. Just two years later, Hockey followed his old coach, taking neighbouring North Sydney in the election that swept the Liberals under John Howard to power. Both Abbott and Hockey moved swiftly through the ministerial ranks and formed a close alliance as each argued their case through the cabinet.

In early 2001, Hockey faced one of his most challenging issues as a minister – the collapse of insurance giant HIH with losses of more than $5 billion. As financial services minister he faced stiff opposition as he argued in favour of the government stepping in to protect victims of the corporate collapse.

Despite opposition from some of their more senior colleagues, Abbott, then employment services minister, was one of those who backed Hockey’s view. Both were concerned how the issue would play politically if the government walked away from the HIH victims.

Both Abbott and Hockey are politically astute and pride themselves on having strong political antenna. Their critics would accuse them of putting politics before policy, but as the results of the past couple of years suggest politically they’re both on the right track.

The two were again at it in 2007, when Howard gave Hockey what many said was an impossible task to sell the electorally unpopular WorkChoices to an increasingly sceptical electorate.

Almost immediately Hockey wanted to change elements of the laws that many Liberals had waited a lifetime trying to achieve. He wanted to soften the laws to ensure workers got penalty rates and public holidays as basic conditions. While publicly there was a brave face, behind closed doors, senior ministers and strategists were looking at their options and by Easter 2007 Howard was ready to move. Hockey may have got Howard across the line, but it would not have happened without the support of a number of his colleagues, including and especially Abbott.

In mid-2011, with the Coalition clearly focused on returning to power at the next election, Abbott and Hockey know the party must stay united.

The fact is that the Liberal Party does not have the most outstanding record when in opposition. Their first term after Howard’s ignominious defeat saw three leaders, as the party first mourned the loss of government with Brendan Nelson as leader, before switching to the unpredictable Malcolm Turnbull. When the party surprisingly to some pundits and inside observers switched to Abbott in December 2009 few could have predicted how the next nine months would unfold.

Abbott showed his colleagues, the Liberal Party and the wider community the power of a united, clear and concise message. Had just a few more votes fallen his way he now would be prime minister, with Hockey his treasurer.

Earlier this year there were some signs of leadership tension, but astute judges of politics in Canberra realise it is extremely unlikely there’ll be any move on Abbott while the polls are so strongly in his favour. Although Abbott’s approach is often criticised, the success of his relentless pursuit of Julia Gillard and her Government is showing in its results.

Over the past year, under Abbott’s highly focused leadership, the Coalition’s position has soared, and if one is to believe the opinion polls, the next election is the Coalition’s to lose. Labor’s primary vote has collapsed to the high 20s, while Gillard’s negative approval rating indicates voters have stopped listening to (and believing) Australia’s first female PM.

But there are no certainties in politics. Victory at the next federal election certainly cannot be guaranteed, and Abbott, Hockey and senior Opposition frontbenchers must prove to voters that they are ready to govern again. At minimum this requires a united parliamentary coalition team and a set of policies that Australian voters can approve of and understand.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 34 books, most recently his memoir My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s journey and the co-authored Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace.

Canberra Times, 4 July 2011