Ousted Treasurer Hockey Named as Australia's Ambassador to U.S.

  • Hockey replaces Kim Beazley in Washington in early 2016
  • New ambassador must tread tightrope between China, U.S.

Former Treasurer Joe Hockey was appointed Australia’s next ambassador to the U.S., less than three months after he was dumped by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull amid criticism of the government’s handling of the economy.

Hockey, 50, who quit parliament on losing the treasurer’s role, will replace Kim Beazley as ambassador in Washington D.C. in early 2016, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement Tuesday.

He’s charged with managing Australia’s most important defense and security relationship at a time when the nation is boosting economic ties with its biggest trading partner China. That diplomatic balancing act is getting tougher as territorial tensions rise in the South China Sea and the U.S. increases its military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

“Our alliance with the United Sates is the bedrock of foreign and defense policy,” Bishop said in the statement. “We are working closely together on shared regional and global security, strategic and economic interests.”

Among the issues Hockey will need to address is U.S. concern over Chinese investors buying strategic Australian assets. President Barack Obama last month used a meeting with Turnbull to discuss the sale of a port in the northern city of Darwin to China’s privately-owned Landbridge Group.

The posting is a vote of confidence in Hockey, who presided over unemployment that reached a 12-year high and a plunge in business investment during his two years as treasurer. His first federal budget delivered in May 2014 angered voters with its unflagged spending cuts to welfare and services, and saw the popularity of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government plunge before Turnbull seized control.

Hockey, whose Bethlehem-born father emigrated to Sydney to run a delicatessen, became a lawyer working on banking and finance after graduating from the University of Sydney. He won the seat of North Sydney at the 1996 election.

“He is one of the most engaging, persuasive people I’ve known in public life,” Turnbull told reporters in Sydney after the announcement. “He’s got great contacts in the United States, he’s a passionate patriot with a good understanding about how Washington works.”

Hockey replaces Beazley, a former deputy prime minister who has served as ambassador since 2010. As well as the importance of their military alliance, the U.S. is Australia’s largest two-way investment partner and its third-largest two-way trading partner.

“Hockey has big shoes to fill,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. “Some people will see it as a risk because he didn’t have a great record as treasurer and hasn’t had diplomatic experience. The posting also comes when there appears to be a few tensions between the alliance partners.”

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