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Josh Frydenberg puts political ambition aside to remain in business

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Former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s decision to put a business future before an attempted political revival is a blow for the Liberal Party, but a relief for the teal member for Kooyong, Monique Ryan.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton might regard his former colleague’s decision with mixed feelings. Frydenberg would probably have increased the chance of the Liberals regaining Kooyong in 2025.

But if elected, Frydenberg would have become an obvious choice for party leader (on the very reasonable assumption the Coalition was still in opposition). More immediately, speculation about that prospect would have dogged Dutton in the run-up to the next election.

For Frydenberg, this must be a bittersweet moment. As he said in a note to Kooyong branch members, telling them he wouldn’t be seeking preselection, “It is a difficult decision and one I have been weighing up for some time”.

His aspiration to be prime minister has been long-standing, strong and obvious. He was indefatigable as treasurer, a quality shared by his successor Jim Chalmers, who also aspires to the top job. But business gives him a bright, lucrative, family-friendly future, without the pressures and uncertainties that politics bring.

Anyway, winning back Kooyong (which Frydenberg held from 2010-22) would have been no shoo-in. Ryan is regarded as more vulnerable than some of the other teals, but the demographics of the seat have been changing and there is a boundary redistribution to come.

After joining Goldman Sachs following his defeat, Frydenberg will now become chairman of the investment bank in Australia and New Zealand.

The firm said:

In this role, Josh will focus on further deepening and strengthening client coverage across the A/NZ region. He will continue to offer advice on economic and geopolitical issues as the firm’s senior regional advisor for Asia Pacific.

While it’s possible Frydenberg, 52, might consider running in the election after next – and he hasn’t closed off that option – it would seem unlikely.

The 2025 election was the logical time to try for a comeback. A term on and much water will have gone under the bridge – in his own life and in politics. The Liberal line-up would be different, the road to leadership potentially harder. Perhaps the fight in Kooyong would be more difficult.

Frydenberg became of a victim of the teal wave. He had stuck very close to former Prime Minister Scott Morrison: loyalty is an admirable character trait but not always a political advantage.

If he, rather than Morrison, had led into the last election, the Coalition might have done better; on the other hand, a leadership change carries its own costs. In any case, it was never on the cards.

Frydenberg, a conservative who became more centrist as time went on, was treasurer in extraordinary circumstances, confronting the economic challenges and demands imposed by the pandemic. He oversaw the wage subsidy JobKeeper program that, while it had its flaws which have seemed more significant in retrospect, was critical to keeping many businesses and workers afloat.

Independent economist Chris Richardson says JobKeeper “wasn’t perfect but it was bloody beautiful”. He praises Frydenberg’s COVID performance, saying,

The key thing was to make the wheels of government move faster than they had ever moved before. I give him high marks for that.

Another independent economist, Saul Eslake, agrees Frydenberg did a good job during COVID, with the only serious mistake being in some of the detail of JobKeeper.

He was right to throw overboard all the Coalition rhetoric about debt and deficit. He was honest, thoughtful and consultative.

Morrison, Eslake says, was a “huge handicap” because he was not an effective communicator of economic ideas, “in contrast to the prime ministers who backed Paul Keating and Peter Costello, the two most successful treasurers of recent history”.

But for the pandemic, Frydenberg would have seen the budget back in black. That achievement now belongs to Chalmers, who is savouring the moment.


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