This Swan song is out of tune and out of touch
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