This Swan song is out of tune and out of touch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Derek Parker

The Good Fight: Six Years, Two Prime Min­is­ters and Star­ing Down the Great Re­ces­sion By Wayne Swan Allen & Un­win, 404pp, $35 AS lit­er­a­ture goes, po­lit­i­cal me­moirs are ap­proached with trep­i­da­tion. They are self­serv­ing almost by def­i­ni­tion, plac­ing their au­thors at the cen­tre of events and al­low­ing them to record their ver­sion of his­tory with­out much chance for re­but­tal. At their best, they can pro­vide in­sights on what hap­pened away from the pub­lic furore. At their worst, the in­sider’s view be­comes an op­por­tu­nity for self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment and the set­tling of old scores.

Which brings us to the The Good Fight, Wayne Swan’s con­tri­bu­tion to the stream of books by for­mer fed­eral La­bor min­is­ters. As trea­surer in the Rudd Mark I and Gil­lard gov-

Septem­ber 13-14, 2014 ern­ments (he was dis­placed by Chris Bowen for Rudd Mark II), he was cer­tainly at the cen­tre of events, in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, which takes up nearly half of the book.

But hack­ing through his long ac­count, one gets the im­pres­sion Swan was the only one who took the GFC se­ri­ously (US Trea­sury sec­re­tary Hank Paul­son helped) and who un­der­stood what had to be done. The prob­lem was made worse, he says, by the fact there was no money in the cof­fers, the Howard gov­ern­ment hav­ing spent it all. “Barely a cent” of the money from the re­sources boom had been saved.

Hold it. Is he not aware that when the Howard gov­ern­ment left of­fice the bud­get showed a large sur­plus, a good pile of as­sets had been ac­crued and ini­tia­tives such as the Fu­ture Fund were un­der way? Fur­ther, it should be noted that dur­ing the Howard years the usual line of La­bor at­tack was that not enough money was be­ing spent. All of this seems to have slipped past Swan. He ac­cuses the Coali­tion of op­pos­ing the stim­u­lus pack­age, call­ing in­stead for Greece-style aus­ter­ity. That’s not true. There were ques­tions about scale and meth­ods but the prin­ci­ple had bi­par­ti­san support.

Nev­er­the­less, the stim­u­lus pack­age went through and Aus­tralia avoided re­ces­sion. This de­serves ap­plause (per­haps not as much as Swan gives him­self) but it must be asked if the tap had to be turned on so hard for so long. In­deed, money was still be­ing sprayed around long after the gov­ern­ment’s own fig­ures were show­ing the econ­omy was re­cov­er­ing. Re­mark­ably, Swan (and Kevin Rudd and oth­ers) con­tin­ued to talk about the need for mas­sive spend­ing. It is almost as if the gov­ern­ment had be­come ad­dicted to the lan­guage of cri­sis. Swan trots out the old Key­ne­sian line about be­ing re­quired to change one’s mind when cir­cum­stances change — and when­ever a politi­cian quotes that, you know trou­ble is on the way.

Very pos­si­bly, the funds saved by the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment might have been enough to weather the storm, but at some point the em- pha­sis shifted from emer­gency stim­u­lus to pro­grams that seemed like a good idea. So the na­tional credit card took a ham­mer­ing. Swan was un­con­cerned: ‘‘debt’’ does not even rate a men­tion in the in­dex of this book. By the end of the La­bor gov­ern­ment, debt ser­vic­ing charges were about $15 bil­lion a year, or $40 mil­lion a day. Not worth men­tion­ing, ap­par­ently.

Swan’s view seems to be that any “La­bor val­ues” spend­ing is good re­gard­less of out­come. He hails the Build­ing the Ed­u­ca­tion Revo­lu­tion schools re­fur­bish­ment pro­gram as a great piece of pol­icy, with­out men­tion­ing the huge waste and de­liv­ery is­sues. Like­wise the home in­su­la­tion scheme and the Na­tional Broad­band Net­work.

True, ad­mits Swan, a few things went wrong — but th­ese were the fault of oth­ers, es­pe­cially Rudd. He claims he and Rudd were al­lies for the first year but it sounds a bit hol­low now. Ju­lia Gil­lard was a much bet­ter prime min­is­ter, mainly be­cause she did more to ac­knowl­edge Swan’s im­por­tance and did not try to run the eco­nomic

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