Originally published in The Spectator Australia
If you want an inside view on the Trump White House, there could hardly be a better read than Joe Hockey’s account of his time as our US ambassador. It’s funny, deep, wry and revealing; and full of insights drawn from a long and successful public life.
Joe Hockey initially saw going to Washington as the consolation prize for not becoming prime minister. He’d previously been president of the students council at Sydney University, a handy cricketer and rugby player, a member of parliament at 30, and a minister at 33. When he missed out on becoming leader of the opposition back in 2009, he remembers me encouraging him to think that he could still aspire to the top job. But when we both became casualties of Malcolm Turnbull’s refusal to play second fiddle to anyone, rather than stay in the Parliament and plot revenge, he opted for a new chapter of service to our country.
As his budget collaborator, I would have liked more detail on Joe’s time as treasurer in the Abbott government but, as he makes clear at the outset, this is a ‘diplomatic’ rather than a ‘political’ memoir. There’s enough, though, to put his departure into context and – who knows – maybe material for another book later? He makes the point that ‘the 2014 budget was absolutely right’ for our country before observing that there were ‘some ministers who were actually lobbying independent senators against it’. The big difference, he thinks, between the Howard Cabinet and mine (in both of which he served) was the character of its senior members. ‘When we were elected to government’ says Joe, ‘I pledged to Abbott that there wouldn’t be a cigarette paper of difference between us on policy. We set about (repairing the budget)…trusting that our colleagues would be part of that journey in the same way we had been back in 1996 when John Howard was elected’. Whatever your disagreements with him, Joe stood out for never saying one thing to your face and another behind your back.
Joe has always disliked dull formality, so he transformed G20 finance ministers’ gatherings by limiting speeches to four minutes, breaking up meetings with harbour cruises, dropping verbiage-ridden communiques, and trying to ensure that the agenda actually dealt with problems rather than tip-toed around them. Good ministers aren’t intimidated by officials, aren’t scared of frank talk, and like to ask questions as much as read documents. That’s why ‘political’ appointees, provided they aren’t just looking for a cushy reward, are often the most effective envoys, at least in English-speaking countries.
Although Australia has had a succession of fine ambassadors to the US, including Andrew Peacock, Michael Thawley, Dennis Richardson and Kim Beazley, I suspect that none would have had a greater impact than Hockey. As a former senior minister, he could bend protocol in ways that might have been hard for a standard diplomat: like offering a dinner for 20 at the residence for a charity fundraiser; finding a private donor to fund the refurbishment of the residence’s grass tennis court (the only one in Washington) so he could stage out-of-the-ordinary events for VIPs; and using his networks to recruit legends like Rupert Murdoch, Anthony Pratt and Greg Norman to showcase Australia. Famously, Turnbull became one of the very first national leaders to speak to Donald Trump after his surprise election, due to Joe’s wrangling from the ‘Shark’ his golfing buddy’s mobile number.
Joe rarely felt constrained to get official sign-off before doing what he thought would help Australia. By dint of visits to the ‘flyover states’, he realised early that Trump had a good chance of winning in 2016, so was one of the very few Washington insiders with established contacts from the very start inside the Trump White House. He was thus well placed to defuse the disastrous Turnbull-Trump phone call over Barack Obama’s refugee swap. And whenever Trump’s pique at some imagined slight from Australia (such as Alexander Downer’s reporting to Canberra of a Trump aide’s gossip about Russian files on Hillary Clinton) threatened damage to our vital interests (on aluminium and steel tariffs, for instance), Joe was able to massage it away.
Innately understanding that ‘all politics is personal’, he shrewdly befriended key White House personnel such as Trump’s longest serving chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney (that led to Joe being the only ambassador to play golf with the president); plus the one senior person who survived throughout Trump’s term, the Kiwi deputy chief of staff, Chris Liddell.
Joe had a gift for knowing what would touch his hosts and gain attention for Australia and tells us how he managed it via a series of arresting anecdotes and vivid pen portraits. Using Trump’s favourite Australians as bait, he enticed the President to a dinner on a retired aircraft carrier. Appreciating that the President had little pre-existing grasp of history, Joe pitched to his fondness for winners and his instinctive love of the military by launching the ‘hundred years of mateship’ campaign based on the centenary of the Battle of Hamel where US soldiers had successfully entered the Great War under Australian command.
Trump emerges from Joe’s dealings with him as a weirdly compelling but incorrigibly flawed figure who saw the presidency less as a vehicle for making change for the better than a drama starring himself. Joe acknowledges his mastery as a political communicator and some genuine accomplishments amidst the chaos before expressing the view (hope?) that Trump won’t run again. Of course, Trump shamed himself by his refusal to accept the election result but he was always going to lose once he made the election all about him rather than what he would do for the American people.
Occasionally, Joe verges on the starstruck about America (was Flipper really that much classier TV than Skippy?), once or twice he remembers things that I can’t, and sometimes lets his knee-jerk disdain for the Crown cloud his normally shrewd and genial judgment (it’s more than possible to support both the UK connection and the US alliance); but this is a fine book that should burnish his reputation as someone who has given his all for our country.