Remember When Hypocrisy was Offensive?

Treasurer Joe Hockey has made good on his threats to launch defamation proceedings against three Fairfax newspapers. The “Treasurer For Sale” story that ran in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times on May 5 detailed all the elements one might expect of such a transaction: a private meeting with Mr Hockey himself, for the price tag of $22,000, available to members of Hockey’s North Sydney Federal Electoral Conference.

When the story was published, an outraged Hockey said the allegations that he was for sale were “both offensive and repugnant,” and that they gave the impression of wrongdoing or potential corruption. Observers added Fairfax headlines to the growing list of things that Hockey finds offensive, including wind farms, self-governance in Indigenous Australia, not enough centralised governance in Afghanistan, speaking in generalities about the pressures of parenting, and something Bob Ellis said.

A spokesperson this week said “the treasurer’s determination to seek to prosecute this matter against the relevant publications should not be underestimated.” And it probably shouldn’t. But it’s not entirely clear what Hockey hopes to gain by taking the somewhat unusual step of a politician launching legal action against the media company. Perhaps Hockey, after seeing his popularity plummet after handing down one of the cruellest budgets in recent memory, is desperate for someone to stick up for him.

A more sinister possibility is that Hockey is firing a warning shot to publishers and editors of future stories. Maybe Hockey is hoping to reinforce Tony Abbott’s sharp warning to the ABC and encourage editors to leave unpopular opinions out of the headlines. Given the efforts Abbott, Hockey & company went to protect press freedom from Labor’s proposed watchdog, I hope I’m barking up the wrong tree.

But it really is a stunning act of hypocrisy. Just two months ago the Coalition announced plans to amend a key section of the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s widely interpreted as payback after Andrew Bolt, friend of the Abbott government, was found by the Federal Court to have contravened it in 2011. The government has said the offending section 18C makes it illegal “to hurt the feelings of others” and needs to go. But what argument can Hockey plausibly make for launching legal action over a three-word headline other than that of a bruised ego?

While apparently desperate to smooth away any suggestion that the treasurer’s new budget is anchored on double-standards, Hockey has presented an even more ridiculous proposition: racially offending an Aboriginal person is perfectly acceptable, but to offend one of the most powerful men in the country – one who has every opportunity to loudly and publicly defend himself, argue to the contrary or present an alternative point of view – and it’s a matter for the courts.

It would be cheap and offensive to assert that for a physically prominent man, Mr Hockey is remarkably thin skinned, so I won’t. That would be childish, and there’s quite enough infantile behaviour going around, just at the minute.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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