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Absent Hockey will be front and centre if Abbott falters

No-show ... Joe Hockey.

No-show ... Joe Hockey. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

There was a brief period of unrest in the Coalition last week when MPs were wondering why the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, was not among the speakers at an economic summit in Melbourne.

Organised by The Australian newspaper, the Economic and Social Outlook Conference featured luminaries from both sides of politics, with Wayne Swan and Penny Wong from Labor, and Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb from the Coalition, among the speakers.

Conspicuous by his absence was Hockey, a no-show that Liberal MPs found more than passing strange. Inquiries were made and it transpired that Hockey had received a flag but someone in the office did not pass it up the chain.

Nonetheless, the initial flurry of concern on Hockey's behalf did underscore the significant level of support he has among colleagues.

Apart from leader of the opposition, there are fewer tasks more thankless in politics than shadow treasurer.

Devoid of resources and up against the might of the government backed by Treasury, all the while having to find ways to pay for or defend the populist promises that opposition leaders are prone to make. At other times, they have to find fault because that's what politics dictates.

Ask Simon Crean, who was reduced to waving bags of salad mix and children's pyjamas in Parliament when Labor was on a hiding to nothing in opposing the GST a decade ago.

Or Wayne Swan, who tried to pick holes in a pretty good economy or oppose popular tax cuts on the basis they were profligate and revenue would be better spent on more enduring reform.

Swan endured almost daily the derision heaped upon him by John Howard and Peter Costello when they were at their formidable height as he tried to develop a separate and distinctive economic vision.

Hockey has made his fair share of mistakes, so much so that last week the government conveniently packaged and released on his behalf a ''conga line of clangers''. Neither is Hockey immune from self-contradiction.

A speech he made overseas earlier this year thundering against the age of entitlement was sound in economic theory but completely at odds with his and Tony Abbott's damnation of Labor's savings measures, which seek to curb that very mentality by bringing under control such ''middle-class welfare'' measures as the baby bonus and the private health insurance rebate.

Still, Hockey's speech was no mistake. His neck will be on the line if the Coalition wins government and cannot meet its own promise to return to surplus.

As the election nears, Hockey's friends say he is being vindicated on the bigger picture and that is what matters most. He was first to pronounce that the big miners would pay next to no mining tax.

Hockey, too, has claimed ever since the 2010 budget, when the government predicted a return to surplus in 2012-13, there would be no surplus. That, too, is looking more likely.

Of philosophical importance, Hockey has stood firm in support of foreign investment. His colleagues note he was out fast and early, pushing back when Barnaby Joyce railed against the takeover of the Cubbie Station cotton farm by a Chinese-led consortium.

If the Coalition wins the next election, there will be fierce competition to be treasurer and finance minister among Hockey, Turnbull, Robb, Arthur Sinodinos and Matthias Cormann.

Hockey will be treasurer.

Some, however, are starting to think out aloud about what may happen before then, as last week's Newspoll - the second in six weeks - showed Labor and the Coalition tied 50-50 on the two-party preferred vote.

Abbott was right to tell the party room the opposition was never going to ride high in the polls for a whole three years. One veteran MP told colleagues perhaps unused to a tight contest that an opposition would normally relish being at 50-50 in the polls.

It would be unbelievable for Abbott not to be allowed to take the Coalition to the next election.

Still, inside the government, there is a saying that ''where there is Abbott, there is hope'' and everyone is starting to gossip and speculate because that is what people do best in Parliament House.

The ALP fears most a switch to Turnbull, the closest thing there is in politics to a sure thing. Labor is also wary of Scott Morrison, who harbours ambition and has a reputation for ruthlessness. Julie Bishop would also want to be considered if there was a move.

However, the word inside the Coalition is if Abbott is hit by the proverbial bus, Hockey would get the nod.

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  • I'm not worried for the Coalition, PM Gillard needs to watch her back, all the current polls mean nothing. The people will just need the carbon tax reminder, the Rudd reminder and of course a re-run of Four Cornors just before the election to get their anti-ALP energy re-charged. The PM still has questions to answer with regard to her lawyer days as well. An early election must be the best bet for Labor but not a sure thing.

    Date and time
    November 05, 2012, 8:21AM
    • Abbott, Hockey & Bishop running the joint......God NO!!!!!!!!

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 9:20AM
    • Frank
      It is funny how all the LNP supporters were crowing about the polls just a couple of months ago and now they seem to think the same polls "mean nothing" now.

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 9:24AM
    • Hey ! "Frank" wake up ! .... its November 2012 not November 2011.

      J. Fraser
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 9:33AM
    • Frank@ I am a swinging voter and fully believe the Coalition will win the next Federal poll with Abbott at the helm. If anyone can put their hand on their heart and honestly say this Federal Government is competent in terms of policy development and implementation, then they are DELUDED. Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello leave this current shambolic rabble for dead in terms of good governance. AND BEFORE people start spruiking the GFC, that was four years ago and Australia's economic links with China meant it never was going to have a significant impact on this country. Labor's answer to everything is to come up with wonderful ideas and put them on the national credit card. Does the NDIS, proposed dental scheme, Gonski et al ring a bell - $120 billion black hole over the forward four-year period. Hello, where is the money coming from. Labor is not going to be able to buy the next election. The Australian public is not that stupid. The Rudd/Gillard governments have been the worst since McMahon's in the late 60s and will ensure Abbott leads the Opposition to an easy election victory in 2013. I would put my house on it.

      You are Kidding
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:00AM
    • Spot on there Frank, aussies find liars repulsive and repugnant. Labor have been the king of scare campaigns for some time now and the strategy seems to be effective. This is taking into account that they've have been speculative in nature, however the LNP's scare campaign will be based on fact, making it even more powerful. Carbon tax - lie, mining tax - FAIL, asylum seekers - FAIL, pink batts - FAIL, BER - FAIL, fuel / grocery / misogyny watch - FAIL, cash for clunkers - FAIL, Slipper - FAIL, Thompson - FAIL, Pokies / Wilkie - FAIL. The list goes on.

      We know the carbon tax lie will be the centrepiece of any scare campaign. The only problem the LNP will have is deciding which FAILS to use - remembering that they simply can't book out all the advertising space on TV, which is what they would need to do if they were going to use every piece of material.

      Let's make sandwiches
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:08AM
    • Steve, similarly all the Labor supporters who were saying the polls mean nothing are suddenly paying attention to them, what's your point?

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:11AM
    • Good to know you are 'not worried for the Coalition,' Frank. No point sweating over a lost cause. A generation change is needed to get some talent worthy of the front bench, onto the LNP front bench. And no one has more questions to answer, than Phony Tony. Also agree with others re how convenient that recent polls offering hope, now mean nothing. Serious dis-connect in the argument, methinks.

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:56AM
    • @Let's make say Aussies find liars repulsive and repugnant. So you hate Howard & his mates over Tampa & kids overboard?
      As far as the economy is concerned we had to spend to stay on top of the economy & now we are seen as the best economy in the see (& get this one) it was not the government that stuffed up these was LNP voting businesses that got greedy & buggered the whole thing up. Business not Government that ripped off the system.

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:08AM
    • Frank you need to worried. With Liberal State Governments in most states, I think Labor will get back in Federally. All the claims of incompetence do is make the opposition lose credibility because the sky has not fallen.

      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:53AM

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