Federal Politics


Sorry Joe, your apology is out of touch

There are few labels more vexed in politics than being "out of touch". Politicians bend over backwards, somersaulting along the way, to prove to voters they are just like them.

Look at Tony Abbott, refusing that swish rental in Canberra while the Lodge is being renovated and bunking down at the Australian Federal Police college instead. Then there's Bill Shorten's unbridled enthusiasm for addressing hordes of hi vi-wearing workers, Christine Milne's blog about her garden, and Kevin Rudd's endless tweets about his cat and shaving cuts. 

It practice, the idea that MPs are just like us is a way hackneyed concept. Politicians may be regular people, but they don't do regular jobs and they don't live regular lives.

In what other gig would you be on the receiving end of at least 90,000 people's complaints, thoughts and community events; have public speaking as part of your daily job description; live away from home for half the year and be on call 24/7? And that's just for a new backbencher.

When you're a senior minister or prime minister, life is a constant series of meetings, greetings, travel, speeches, interviews and nationally significant decisions.

As part of this, the country supports you with a department-full of staff and an office of your own advisers. You also get a generous stationery allowance, chauffeur-driven car travel and VIP flights with cheese platters and fine wines.


Given the workload, it isn't weird if you don't make it to the IGA, ATM or petrol pump very often - because most of what you're doing is already paid for or sorted out by someone else. This doesn't make you a diva of Marie Antoinette proportions. It just means you are concentrating on your job.

Indeed, perhaps if there wasn't so much sensitivity about MPs needing to prove they are "of the people" it would benefit the nation. Instead of politicians racing around, having their photos taken with pensioners, road workers, mums, nurses and school kids - just to prove they are just like you and me - their time could be better spent um, running the country.

But of course there is a limit. And this week, Joe Hockey hit that limit with silver bells on.

On Wednesday, in an innocent-enough interview with ABC radio in Brisbane, the Treasurer argued the budget was fair because it was hitting wealthy people, too. More specifically, he said the fuel tax targets richer Australians because, "the poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far, in many cases''.

In one sense, Hockey was technically correct - and his office quickly released a statement with Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that average weekly expenditure on petrol increases in absolute terms with household income.

But as a 2001 Parliamentary Library paper also points out, "people on low incomes pay a higher proportion of their incomes in the form of excise than people on high incomes".  

Besides, no one else was buying Hockey's "poor peeps don't really drive" argument. It failed the pub test with flying colours.

And yet, as Twitter popped a vein with its #OtherThingsThePoorDontDo hashtag ("write a thank-you note for a bottle of Grange"), Hockey popped up on radio the next morning to say he stood by his comments. "Australian Bureau of Statistics data is not something I've concocted, it's a reality," he declared, with more than a hint of "so there".

It was about as effective as a parasol in a typhoon. Labor jumped about with its "cigar chomping Foghorn Leghorn" line, but more worrying was the reaction from the Treasurer's own side. With Hockey supporters privately expressing their dismay, on Friday, Christopher Pyne failed to back the car comment six times during a breakfast TV hit-out. The Prime Minister's take? "Well, plainly, I wouldn't say that". 

Then, on Friday afternoon, the Treasurer rocked up on 2GB with a grovelling bag full of mea culpas. "I am really genuinely sorry that there is any suggestion … that I or the government does not care for the most disadvantaged," he told Ben Fordham, as if on the verge of a cry. "I don’t want to hurt people."

It was stunning stuff. Particularly when you think it all stemmed from the Treasurer trying to sell his budget, three months on from delivering the damn thing.

Bill Shorten pounced on Hockey's apology straight away, arguing it was 48 hours too late. And indeed, the question remains: did Hockey say sorry because he had an epiphany about poor people and their cars? Because he'd become a national laughing stock? Or because not even his bestest colleagues would back him in?

He's out of touch. But is he out of something else as well?

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.