"The age of personal responsibility has begun": Joe Hockey. Photo: Peter Braig
Joe Hockey is supplying something the Abbott government has been lacking — a purpose.
In its first months the government had trouble graduating from opposition to a ruling footing. It campaigned for office on the promise to get rid of Labor; once there, it struggled to find any other purpose or agenda. Hockey is providing both.
The purpose is to impose the virtues of the Protestant ethic of work, thrift and self reliance. The irony is that it's being done by a Palestinian-Armenian Australian Catholic. "The age of entitlement is over," Hockey said on Monday. "The age of personal responsibility has begun."
He'd talked about the perniciousness of the age of entitlement while in opposition. It was interesting in a hypothetical kind of way. But Hockey is turning it into reality.
Already we see the Treasurer leading the government in resolute decisions. The end to Holden's taxpayer-funded death throes was an act of political bravery. The decision last week to deny SPC Ardmona a government handout showed this was not merely a matter of money. The fruit canner was asking for $25 million, less than previous governments have given to renovate footy fields in marginal electorates. This was a decision about a principle and precedent.
Hockey was unmoved that the firm, owned by Coca-Cola Amatil, was the dominant employer in a marginal electorate: "This is not the proper use of taxpayers' money," Hockey told ABC radio.
On Monday the Treasurer confronted the demands of farmers. Hockey rebuffed the public campaigning of his cabinet colleague, Barnaby Joyce, to give farmers help with restructuring their bank debts: "They should speak to the people that they owe the money to as a starting point."
Hockey has so far stood firm against major employers, their unions, agriculture and his own colleagues as guardian of the public purse and spokesman for private virtue. And he has prevailed. Of course, it's the traditional role for the treasurer to be the hard man. Some never manage to achieve it. Wayne Swan, for instance.
But Hockey can only succeed with the acquiescence of his Prime Minister. So far, Tony Abbott has been fully supportive. Hockey's big test, his first budget, lies ahead. His credentials will be defined by it. So will Abbott's government.