Swan’s billionaire blast

Apparently being named as the World’s Greatest Treasurer has had a transformative effect on Wayne Swan, who has gone from mild-mannered bean counter to edgy Labor enforcer with a poison pen in the space of a few months.

A week or so ago Wayne’s target was former prime minster Kevin Rudd. After Rudd finally announced that he would contest the Labor leadership, Swan rushed out a statement ripping Rudd to shreds.

“The party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities in the world and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision-making and his deeply demeaning attitude.”

Hopefully Swan felt good when he got that off his chest. Because he must have felt a bit remorseful when he read the unhelpful attack the next day – and even worse when he saw the class with which fellow Labor heavyweights Anthony Albanese and even Julia Gillard handled the leadership ructions.

Now Swan has come off the long run again, this time taking up the pen to launch an attack on three of Australia’s richest people, mining billionaires Andrew Forrest, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

In an essay in The Monthly (to be fair, this would have been written long before the Rudd attack given the long deadlines for print) Swan has attacked what he sees is wealthy entrepreneurs using their cash to promote their “vested interests”.

“The combination of industry deep pockets, conservative political support, biased editorial policy and shock-jock ranting has been mobilised in an attempt to protect vested interest.

“What characterises the vested interests that I’m concerned about is how they misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest.

“For every Andrew Forrest who wails about high company taxes and then admits to not paying any, there are a hundred Australian business people who held on to their employees and worked with government to keep the doors of Australian business open during the GFC [global financial crisis].”

This, of course, all goes back to the drama surrounding the mining tax, which the Rudd Government announced in May 2010 and handled so poorly (mainly because of a distinct lack of consultation) that it became one of the reasons Rudd lost his job.

The miners did campaign aggressively against the tax (including holding the now infamous billionaires’ protest in Perth) and were successful in getting the Gillard Government to make a series of changes that make the tax much more friendly for the sector and small miners in particular.

While I do agree with Swan that Gina Rinehart’s moves into media ownership raise issues about the potential for individuals to wield unusually large amounts of influence, and this should be watched closely, Swan would also know that lobbying to get laws changed goes on all the time, from lots of different sources.

Rich people are able to be more aggressive in the way they lobby, but the ideas of some sort of right wing conspiracy is a little far-fetched – what we’ve seen so far is billionaires talking through their own pocket on one industry-specific issue. I think the public is pretty good at seeing that for what it is.

Swan’s attack on the billionaires is perhaps more about Labor trying to reclaim its traditional territory – the working man.

Despite the fact Labor (and Swan in particular) has done a good job managing the economy during a difficult period, the party’s relations with the business community are at rock bottom – and probably won’t improve.

Swan has nothing to lose, therefore, by lashing figures like Rinehart, Palmer and Forrest.

“Politicians have a choice: between exploiting divisions by promoting fear and appealing to the sense of fairness and decency that is the foundation of our middle-class society; between standing up for workers or kneeling down at the feet of the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers,” Swan writes.

This is the key paragraph (at least from the bits we’ve seen so far). It’s ridiculous to suggest the choice is this stark and that our pollies should only listen to workers rather than employers, but Swan wants to make it clear which side of the fence he is on – and whacking a few billionaires is an obvious way to do it, even if it is pretty unoriginal.

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