News National How ‘Sloppy Joe’ became the man to save the US alliance

How ‘Sloppy Joe’ became the man to save the US alliance

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Australia's ambassador to Washington Joe Hockey has broken his silence on the Helloworld affair. Photo: Getty
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Given the horror week that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has endured, perhaps the least of his worries is that the man formerly known as ‘Sloppy Joe’ is handling the delicate task of restoring our nation’s fractured relationship with the circus that is the Trump administration.

Yes, the Australian ambassador to the US is none other than Joe Hockey, the much maligned Abbot government treasurer who was collateral damage in the previous rendition of the Abbott-Turnbull wars. Mr Hockey was shipped off to the plum diplomatic posting after the regime change to make way for Turnbull’s pick, Scott Morrison.

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Joe Hockey has been sending selfies from his post in Washington. Photo: AAP

Since then, Mr Hockey appears to be having a jolly time in Washington, posting on social media about sporting events, Texan barbeques and Australian ingenuity while avoiding anything overtly political (other than a few selfies at the Trump inauguration).

But following the meltdown of US-Australia relations this week, over the strategically leaked details of a tense phone call between US President Donald Trump and Mr Turnbull, it is now Mr Hockey’s challenge to ensure the refugee resettlement plan at the centre of the dispute does not unravel any further.

On Friday, reports emerged that Mr Hockey had met with President Trump’s closest advisers in an effort to resolve what was increasingly looking like an impasse on the plan to resettle in the US around 1000 refugees who’d arrived by boat during the Rudd-Gillard era.

The plan, struck under the outgoing Obama administration, is badly needed by Mr Turnbull to stem voter concern about the fate of legitimate refugees stranded on Nauru and Manus Island. Even voters who approve of the harsh treatment of refugees would see a failure of the relocation plan as further evidence of Malcolm Turnbull’s inability to deliver on his promises.

That’s without taking into consideration any broader impact of the US-Australia détente on the ANZUS alliance or our trade relationship with an important supplier and customer.

So is Mr Hockey up to the task? That’s difficult to assess without knowing what, if any, approach will have an impact on the unpredictable President and his henchmen.

If a charm offensive is needed, then Mr Hockey may well be the right person for the job. It’s been a while since anyone has had much positive to say about the former treasurer, but he was once considered the Coalition’s most talented salesman and came surprisingly close to becoming Liberal leader.

That was when conservatives within the Coalition were determined to tear down Malcolm Turnbull 1.0 over his fraternising with Kevin Rudd and the proposed emissions trading scheme. When the leadership challenge occurred, Mr Hockey was considered to be Mr Turnbull’s main competition, with Tony Abbott a distant third.

A Newspoll at the time rated Mr Hockey (33 per cent) over Malcolm Turnbull (30 per cent) and Mr Abbott (19 per cent) as the best person to lead the Liberal Party.

But Mr Hockey made the first of a string of poor political decisions that would eventually destroy his credibility by asking social media for advice on emissions trading and scaring off potential supporters in the Liberal party room. He then unexpectedly lost the first round of voting, making way for Abbott to beat Turnbull by one vote in the subsequent round.

Hockey was once regarded as a future Liberal leader, but a series of mistakes ruined his chances.

Overlooking that brainfart, Abbott retained Hockey as shadow treasurer and then made him treasurer after the defeat of Labor in 2013. Mr Hockey still had a lot of promise, having persuasively delivered an “end of entitlement” speech back in 2012 that was realised in the Abbott government’s first budget in 2014.

However, things pretty much fell apart for Mr Hockey from there, starting with voters’ realisation that the budget showed the end of entitlement only applied to the young, the old and the disadvantaged while high income earners were left unscathed.

The Abbott-Hockey government rejected Treasury super advice.
Hockey ended up a victim of the Abbott-Turnbull leadership battle. Photo: AAP

Mr Hockey’s slow glide to ignominy was then marked with a succession of bad judgements and mis-speaks, including the patrician puffing of cigars after 2014 horror budget, claiming poor people didn’t drive cars, and telling home buyers priced out of the market to get a better job.

He then became a convenient (if not completely undeserving) scapegoat, held responsible for the Abbott government not being able to sell its austerity budget to Australian voters. Mr Abbott eventually threw him under the bus in a last ditch effort to hang on to the prime ministership.

Little of this retrospective will matter to the hardliners who make up President Trump’s entourage. They will likely see Mr Hockey as a jovial unknown, given the daunting task of finding a way for the Orange One to accept Australia’s “illegals” without losing the faith of his own xenophobic supporters.

History suggests Mr Hockey has the charm but perhaps not the political smarts to succeed. Even more depressing is the fact that, even if he does, there’s no guarantee the US President will honour the resolution or any other agreement.

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