Not Your Average Bio
Andrew P Street
What made Diamond Joe change from jovial, avuncular goof into angry, sulky goof?
We asked Andrew P Street to read the Joe Hockey biography so that you wouldn’t have to. You're welcome.
Biographers, more or less by necessity, have to fall in love in with
their subject. Writing a book is a nightmarishly long ordeal and
Stockholm Syndrome must kick in at some point out of sheer
So it’s no surprise that Not Your Average Joe’s author
Madonna King is clearly a fan of Joe Hockey and goes that extra mile to
spin his successes as mighty victories and his failures as being the
fault of lesser men (and always men) who either lack Hockey’s peerless
vision or are jealous of his incandescent talents.
The problem is that it all comes across like that friend who talks
about the awesome new guy they’re dating, or their hilarious colleague,
but every single story makes the guy sound like a bullying jerk.
It feels a bit like King is telling the reader breathless tales of
her new crush. You can just imagine her dishing over a coffee: “Joe was
criticised by feminist groups on campus during his election campaign for
the University of Sydney Student’s Representative Council, so when he
became President he immediately closed the Women’s Room! Isn’t that hilarious?”
“Um, actually, that sounds like he was, at best, being dickishly
ungracious in victory and at worst putting women at risk by eliminating a
safe space for them on campus,” you would hesitantly reply.
“Oh, you just have to get to know him!” King would presumably respond
with a dismissive guffaw. “It’s just his sense of humour! Like when he
claimed he’d signed up 80 new members to the local branch of the Liberal
Party on the North Shore and now admits that he mainly just added the
names of dead people to the register and was never caught – I mean, what
Not Your Average Joe is not just a collection of
heart-warming tales of revenge-misogyny and voter fraud, it's also the
story of how one deeply insecure young man grew up to become the most
deeply entitled and self-aggrandising treasurer Australia has ever known
– which, in a field that includes such avowed Paul Keating fans as Paul
Keating, is no small achievement.
Then again, most of the evidence for Hockey’s inflated sense of his
own glorious significance is not contained within the covers of the
book, but in the fact that there’s a book with covers within which to
contain said glorious significance.
Put bluntly: why the ever-loving fuck would a man in the first year
of his job say yes to the writing and publication of his biography
unless he was a) utterly assured of his importance and felt there was a
genuine need to capture this historic moment, or b) knew in his heart of
hearts that no-one was going to remember what a Joe Hockey was after
the next election, and possibly by mid-way through the current
The answer, told time and time again in the book, is a). Joe Hockey
wanted to be PM since he was four, we’re assured. Everyone – from his
unshakably supportive father to his indulgent schoolteachers to his
mates on the rugby field – repeatedly and unceasingly assured him that
he would be PM. The fact the wanted it when he was a preschooler
indicates that his desire for the role predated having any idea what
that role actually meant. This is primal gimme-I-want stuff, not a
cool-headed dedication to public service.
That theme – unshakable entitlement – is what comes through time and
again through the book. When he’s successful, he gloats. When he fails,
An illustrative example is that before he was the first to be
eliminated in the three-horse Liberal Party leadership spill in 2009 –
the one that toppled Malcolm Turnbull and installed Tony Abbott as
leader in opposition – he was so assured of his own victory that he
didn’t even bother to call MPs and lobby them for their vote, as Abbott
was comprehensively doing.
“That feeds the view that he has this destiny thing where he should
get things easily,” said one unnamed ‘senior Liberal’, echoing the
opinions expressed elsewhere by John Howard, Peter Costello, Peter
Dutton, Nick Minchin and practically everyone else.
Needless to say Joe sees it rather differently.
He didn’t lose the vote: he was betrayed by Turnbull, who assured him
he wouldn’t run (despite having declared his intention to do so on
television a mere two days before the vote, and who gently suggests in
the book that Joe’s version of events exists entirely in his own head)
and by Abbott who had pledged to support Hockey (who changed his mind
after they argued over giving a free vote for the Turnbull-and-Kevin
Rudd-endorsed Emissions Trading Scheme).
Among the other people that Joe accuses of betraying him – in a book
written by a sympathetic author who even fills several pages singing the
praises of the universally loathed WorkChoices – are the following
Howard (for giving him bad advice about pushing for a free vote on
the Emissions Trading Scheme), Costello (for not supporting his desire
to be finance minister), Minchin (for backing Abbott after earlier
supporting Joe), Abbott (for running against him after he said he
wouldn’t), Rudd (for asking Hockey’s advice on how to be opposition
leader and then applying it), Ian Macdonald (for criticising Hockey as
senior tourism minister), Family First’s Steve Fielding (who agreed to a
free vote on the ETS, according to Hockey, and then announced on TV
that he didn’t), and pretty much everyone else.
He also gets some stories in about cool Terminator-like quips he made
to the faces of Howard and Turnbull during arguments, which both men
politely deny ever happened, lending weight to the idea that Hockey is
first and foremost a fabulist convinced of his own greatness.
It’s at times a genuinely sobering read: much of the first act of the
book covers Joe’s childhood and education, painting the picture of an
isolated little boy carrying his self-made immigrant father’s dreams of
greatness on his shoulders, teased for his size through school (gaining
the nickname “Sloppy Joe”) and looking for camaraderie through sport,
cadets and finally politics.
It’s also implied that Joe wasn’t exactly a hit with the ladies. It
doesn’t help that his wife, Melissa Babbage, comes across in the book as
the least sympathetic spouse since Lady Macbeth. The enormously
successful and mightily wealthy investment banker met Joe at a Young
Liberals function and every quote in the book suggests that she quickly
assessed him as a sound, if undervalued, investment and engineered a
matrimonial merger, speaking of their courtship and marriage as though
they were necessary obligations to be overcome rather than the glorious
unfolding of a love to last through the ages.
Mind you, he did allegedly propose to her while accompanied by a violinist playing music from The Phantom of the Opera which suggests that romance and creativity aren’t big concerns of Joe’s either.
The art of the hubrisography is a rich and noble one – why, right
this minute I have two music bios on my shelf, David Barnett’s Love and Poison: the authorised biography of Suede and Tony Fletcher’s Never Stop: the Echo & the Bunnymen Story,
both of which have penultimate chapters in which the respective bands
express their boundless optimism for their rosy, hit-filled future which
are followed by an immediate pre-publication epilogue essentially
reading “…and then they split up.”
In a similar spirit, the book ends with King mentioning that Joe was
photographed having a cheeky cigar with finance minister Mathias Corman
just after delivering his first triumphant budget, and then suggests, as
though in passing, that it remained to be seen how it would be
received. Which is sort of like writing a biography of Austria that ends
in 1914, mentioning that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been
assassinated in Sarajevo and idly speculating as to whether there’d be
any sort of official response.
One of her closing sentences, though, was meant to reiterate how much
Joe and Tones are BFFs these days, but now has a somewhat ominous tinge
as they both grow increasingly testy over who is failing to win the
nation’s hearts and minds: “Barnaby Joyce, who like Hockey is one of the
government’s best retail politicians, says the two will rise and fall
That may prove to be the most accurate line in the entire book.