Tony Smith: Costello’s man in Canberra?

18 June 2012

Written by: Emil Jeyaratnam

When you think of the key figures shaping coalition policy going into the next election, you’re certain to think of names like Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey … but how about Tony Smith? Yep. Tony Smith.

With the next federal election less than 18 months away, Smith, MP for the Victorian seat of Casey, is more pivotal to the Coalition’s electoral chances that his

Tony Smith

Source: APH

low profile would suggest. Not only is he helping drive policy, but his substantial experience will be crucial in bolstering the opposition’s economic credentials.

Smith is the shadow parliamentary secretary for tax reform, and the deputy chairman of the Coalition policy development committee, which is headed by Andrew Robb.

After the disappointment of the last election, Robb and Smith started work on developing new policies, meeting with any Coalition member who had any ideas. Then every Tuesday during parliamentary sitting week, Smith reportedly opened his doors to meet with colleagues and workshop the policies.

It seems that the hard work has paid off, with Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey recently claiming that all coalition policies are finalised and costed. This might not be entirely true, as evinced by the different positions taken by Abbott and Robb on paid maternity leave, but the opposition is confident it has a range of sound policies ready to go.

However, with the Coalition unlikely to release the policy details until the election is called, the government has plugged their own numbers into coalition policy and found what they claim are ‘black holes’.

Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program, finance minister Penny Wong taunted the Coalition to prove her wrong: ‘If Andrew Robb, Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott say this is wrong, tell us where it’s wrong.’

Though Smith’s name wasn’t mentioned, some of the mud was aimed his way, as he is an integral part of the team that has to ensure the Coalition’s numbers add up. And Smith has his work cut out for him.

Hamstrung by Abbott’s pledge to repeal both the carbon tax and the mining tax, the party will look to Smith to find savings to fund costly policy initiatives such as paid maternity leave, the Direct Action Plan and the subsidising of nannies.

Smith’s importance to the Liberal Party has much to do with Australia’s longest serving treasurer: Peter Costello. Before he entered parliament in 2001, Smith worked for Costello – starting off as media adviser and then eventually becoming his senior advisor.

For a Liberal/National opposition that is in the unusual position of having to prove its economic credibility, Smith’s experience with Costello will be vital. At the politically tender age of 45, Smith has already seen many federal budgets. And he seems determined to defend Costello’s legacy.

Ever since Wayne Swan criticised Peter Costello in his 2008 budget address, Smith has had Swan squarely in his sights, continually attacking the Treasurer for taking Costello’s $45 billion ‘nest egg’ and turning it into a deficit.

Earlier this year, Smith wrote in The Australian that ‘instead of building up our budget defences in the face of an oncoming global economic tsunami, Wayne Swan has left us treading water in a sea of red ink’.

He recently followed up with an article in The Daily Telegraph, in which he wrote: ‘Swan thinks he can airbrush away his failure through bloviation, bluff and bluster.’

However, somewhat ironically, it was Smith’s connection to Costello that initially held him back during the Howard-Costello ‘cold war’ years, with Howard reluctant to promote Costello’s supporters.

But even Howard could not deny Smith’s rising star for too long, eventually making Smith his personal parliament secretary in 2007.

Smith then witnessed a turbulent time in Coalition politics from the frontbench. He was the opposition’s education spokesman when Malcolm Turnbull defeated Brendan Nelson. Though he backed Nelson, Smith came through the leadership spill unscathed and was made shadow assistant treasurer.

However, in November 2009, Smith got his hands bloody when he resigned from the frontbench, along with other key coalition members, in protest over Turnbull’s deal with Labor on the emissions trading scheme.

This resulted in another messy challenge, in which Smith’s name was even mentioned alongside Abbott’s as a potential deputy leader. Though Smith denied this, it was an indication of his growing stature in the Liberal Party.

Then came the fall.

Smith, as the new shadow communications minister, was tasked with selling the Coalition’s alternative to the NBN. And he failed miserably, with some colleagues reportedly blaming his inability to sell their policy for the party’s 2010 election loss.

Abbott acted swiftly, demoting Smith in the post-election reshuffle. But recognising how important the talented Smith is to the party, Abbott did not push him too far away. And Smith has been allowed to regain his lustre in the background, while still handling important roles where he can develop coalition policy.

Despite the setback, Smith’s rise in the Liberal Party has been significant.

After cutting his political teeth in student politics and as a policy researcher at the Institute of Public Affairs, Smith rose quickly within Costello’s team.

By 1998, Smith – then only 31 – reportedly had the numbers for pre-selection in his electorate of Chisholm. But he delayed running, choosing instead to move with his young family to the relatively safe Liberal seat of Casey, in Victoria’s east. Smith was pre-selected in 2001 and won the election comfortably with a margin of 7.16%. And even in the 2010 election, he won with a margin of 4.18%.

Smith remains very popular in Casey, a middle-class semi-rural electorate with little unemployment, where he is often seen driving around in his ‘mobile office’ – an old Holden Ute that he rebuilt.

With the Coalition primed for an early election, Smith has been busy raising his profile beyond Casey, writing opinion articles and speaking strongly in parliament. He even resorted to bringing in a prop (a plastic pot) to highlight the impact of the carbon tax on a plastics factory in Casey.

Come next election, Tony Smith will be hoping his name will sit comfortably – and prominently – alongside the Coalition’s leadership group.

 

Emil Jeyaratnam is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is the co-editor of upstartYou can follow him on Twitter: @EmilJeyaratnam

To view profiles of some of the other backbenchers as part of upstart’s Backbench Insiders project, click here.