07/03/2012 - 10:58

Swan blind to spreading success

07/03/2012 - 10:58


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Treasurer Wayne Swan has stirred up a heated debate by attacking ‘mining billionaires’, but the flaws in his latest ‘think piece’ run much deeper.

Treasurer Wayne Swan has stirred up a heated debate by attacking ‘mining billionaires’, but the flaws in his latest ‘think piece’ run much deeper.

TREASURER Wayne Swan fired with both barrels when he published an essay in The Monthly and spoke a few days later at the National Press Club.

Mr Swan said he wanted to make four points, but the only one that most people would have read about was his attack on a handful of wealthy business people.

In fact, it was less than a handful; only three have been named – Andrew Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

“There has been a perceptible shift in this country over the past few years towards a stronger and stronger influence, being wielded by a smaller and smaller minority,” Mr Swan claimed.

Warming to his theme, he said: “We must fight a pitched battle against the influence of vested interests that seek to shape public policy to their own excessive benefit.”

And there was more. “We can’t afford to let the market system or the political conversation be undermined by the greed of a wildly irresponsible few.”

What evidence did he offer to support these extravagant claims? Well, not much, except for his failure to secure wide public support for his Resource Super Profits Tax.

“The billionaires’ protest against the mining tax would have been laughed out of town in the Australia I grew up in, yet two years ago it got a wide and favourable reception in the media,” Mr Swan said.

The RSPT certainly did attract a vigorous opposition campaign, helped by some high-profile individuals with deep pockets. But more fundamentally, the critics gained traction because the policy was so poorly conceived and so ineptly promoted.

Perhaps in a quiet moment in his retirement, Mr Swan will acknowledge that.

Another piece of evidence he offered was the debate over a carbon tax. There has been a vigorous debate in this country, just as there has in most countries around the world, and last time I checked Australia had actually legislated to introduce a carbon tax. So who is winning that debate?

A major flaw in Mr Swan’s thesis is his focus on just one ‘vested interest’. What about the union movement, and its profound influence on his own government’s policy? What about the clubs industry and its successful defence of unregulated poker machines on the east coast?

There are many interest groups in our society. Their fortunes wax and wane. It is mischievous and divisive for Mr Swan to pick on a few individuals and claim they are a threat to our democracy.

Two other points made by Mr Swan were also cause for concern.

First, he asked whether the benefits of a strong economy will “flow to more Australians in our community, or just to the fortunate few”?  

Fair question, at face value. He also made the reasonable point that Australia has a good track record, with a range of government policies designed to ensure the less fortunate in our society are looked after.

But there was no mention of the ability of hard-working and enterprising Australians to make their own way.

The pages of this newspaper regularly feature individuals who started their working life as a ‘tradie’ and ended up running their own business; Dale Alcock is a prime example.

Labor clearly struggles to come to terms with the aspirational working class. People who work in traditional blue collar trades, but are often independent contractors on high incomes and with no links to the union movement.

In fact, many of these people can be found working on projects backed by the likes of Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart, working long hours, earning high incomes, and getting ahead.

Another worrying aspect of Mr Swan’s speech concerned productivity.

He opened this section with a motherhood statement: “The key ingredient to higher living standards of all Australians is productivity growth”.

The problem was that, when he discussed contributors to improved productivity, it was all about government; investing in education, skills training, wider broadband, and the like.

But what about activities government should get out of? What about regulations that should be eased? What about workplace relations?

The current review of the Fair Work Act is one of the most critical issues affecting business in this county. Mr Swan didn’t even buy into that argument.


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