lifestyle

Sexist assumptions in Hockey housing furore.

Joe Hockey doesn’t own his family’s fortune. His wife does.

In all the furore prompted by Joe Hockey’s comments on house ownership, the casual assumption is that the Hockey family fortune is the Treasurer’s. That’s insulting to the architect, designer and majority owner of their property portfolio, his wife, Melissa Babbage.

There really is only one piece of personal advice Joe Hockey is in a position to deliver on the complicated subject of home ownership.

And that advice is: Marry well.

Read more: A working mother delivers a glorious smackdown to Joe Hockey on house prices.

In the furore surrounding the Treasurer’s remarks about Sydney housing affordability earlier this week, in which photos of Mr Hockey’s multiple domiciles have been juxtaposed with his observations about the necessity of finding “a good job that pays well”, one could easily miss the fact that Mr Hockey’s personal access to affordable housing does not arise from having had a good job that pays well.

It arises – in the main – from Mr Hockey having had the foresight to marry a woman called Melissa Babbage.

Ms Babbage, an ambitious and successful investment banker with a 20-year career at Deutsche Bank behind her, is the author – and owner – of the “Hockey Portfolio”.

It was she who bought the majority share in the Canberra home where rooms were rented out to visiting MPs (including her husband) – a canny investment, seeing as the family home was bought in the late 1990s, when Canberra houses were going for a song owing to the new Howard Government’s public service cuts.

The house cost $320,000 to buy. Now it’s worth probably six times that.

It was Melissa Babbage who bought the Hunters Hill home where the Hockey family lives. To the extent that there is shrewd investment and high earnings in the Hockey family, it is she who is responsible.

And yet, the family fortune is casually assumed to be the Treasurer’s.

One can only wonder how annoying this pattern of assumption is to Ms Babbage, who apart from being the family breadwinner must also – as does any federal political spouse – endure the routinised inconvenience of single parenthood for at least half the year, when her husband is away.

On Budget night last year, when the family was photographed together before Mr Hockey’s first – and, to date – least successful budget, Ms Babbage’s choice of dress became part of the prosecution case against her husband.

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“When Treasurer Joe Hockey chopped up the Budget, he didn’t take a pair of scissors to his wife’s wardrobe,” observed the news.com.au website, having identified Ms Babbage’s gown as a $795 creation from Carla Zampatti.

Read more: Mortgage-payer Tony Abbott reckons Joe Hockey is not out of touch.

The story went on to speculate on alternate uses for the $795 (107 GP visits under the Budget’s proposed co-payment scheme, 150 prescriptions and so on), all pursuing the same theme: Treasurer hits up the poor while splurging big bucks on frocks for his wife.

Now, I would wager that the Treasurer’s own suit cost more than $795. I would also double down and bet that Ms Babbage probably bought that too, out of the considerable fortune that she built, with her own two hands and her brain, having started out as a junior track and field champ, become a physiotherapist and then forged an extraordinary career in the finance sector, which continues to be a field in which women in leadership positions are both rare, and paid worse than their male colleagues.

She did this while her husband worked as a political staffer and then as a backbencher and then as a junior minister – all good jobs that are well paid, but not the sort of jobs that get you into multi-million-dollar houses.

The ritual assumption that Joe Hockey’s wife is somehow part of his property portfolio, rather than the architect, designer and majority owner of it, is sexist and insulting to her, and it happens all the time.

This is not even a new or Hockey-specific thing; back in 1996, a great fuss was made about the fact that Tanya Costello owned 200 shares in the Commonwealth Bank while her husband was the Treasurer, as if she didn’t have the wit or ability to make even minor investments in her own right.

The Treasurer’s remarks this week are, of course, all his own work. They should be filed under “T” for “Things Joe Hockey Could Possibly Have Phrased Better”. This is a bulging file, it must be said.

Reading Mr Hockey’s remarks in full, one can see what he was trying to say. He was trying to make the unremarkable point that when considering what governments can do to help people, one should remember that the best kind of prosperity is self-sufficiency. That “the starting point for a first homebuyer is to get a good job that pays good money.”

“If you’ve got a good job and it pays good money and you have security in relation to that job, then you can go to the bank and you can borrow money and that’s readily affordable,” he continued. “More affordable than ever to borrow money for a first home now than it has ever been.” This is also true, inasmuch as the crazy highs of Sydney property prices have coincided with interest rates that are at crazy lows. But the phrase “more affordable than ever” is not one that should prudently be uttered anywhere near the Sydney real estate market just now, and certainly not in the course of a slightly rambling answer to a question about how difficult first-home buyers are currently finding things in that part of the world.

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As in the case of the “poor people don’t drive” remarks, in which Mr Hockey was technically correct but horrendously off-key in his tone and timing, this is a controversy that could have been avoided had the Treasurer taken a slightly less discursive approach.

Read more: The best internet responses to Joe Hockey’s speech about young people.

Yes: It could also have been avoided had journalists, opponents, and social media stirrers not leapt to the least-charitable interpretation of his remarks.

But the comments were woolly. And when one provides excessive wool, the chances of a resultant knitted garment that is not to one’s taste do tend to escalate.

And so, “Hockey Doles Out Insensitive Advice To Working Families” is the interpretation that was most-widely seized upon.

The new Greens leader, Richard di Natale, described them as “out there” and “let them eat cake sort of stuff”.

It’s not a bad analogy, actually. Marie Antoinette – the woman with whom the phrase “Let them eat cake” is unshakeably associated – never actually made that remark. But her naggingly tin ear to the disparity between her own circumstances of great wealth (she, too, married judiciously) and the hardship afflicting her subjects meant that she was generally convicted of the clanger, and her memory will wear it forever.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, it is said.

And people who live in large houses should be – especially when asked about poorer people who can’t afford one – extremely watchful of their wandering clauses.

This article was originally published by ABC

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Annabel Crabb is the ABC’s chief online political writer. She tweets at @annabelcrabb.

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