This weekend, Wayne Swan will touch down at Heathrow and attempt to fashion a response to the global financial crisis amid a who’s who of finance ministers and central bankers. The G20 summit has been granted extra urgency by Monday’s downbeat World Bank report and is expected to tackle difficult topics like regulation and tax havens. But will Australia be sending the right minister to London? Treasurers in other parts of the world are actually called finance ministers, so Lindsay Tanner doesn’t get a guernsey. But, if you believe the nation’s media, the Treasurer should handed over the keys to his cabinet colleague long ago.
Tanner has been the subject of a record number of puff pieces in recent weeks, led by The Age’s usually reliable economics correspondent Peter Martin. Martin produced this laudatory profile in a few Saturdays ago and then followed up yesterday with an extraordinary attack on Swan’s economic literacy. In a purely coincidental insert in Monday’s Age, The University of Melbourne ran its own version of the Tanner story via a self-penned profile taking in his time at the venerable sandstone institution in the 1970s. Tanner describes himself as an “animal raised in captivity” let loose on the readers of the university paper Farrago when he assumed the editorship in 1977. (A Tanner-penned Farrago editorial entitled “Coke Snorts and Acid Drops” seems to have been wisely omitted from the spiel, however).
Clearly, Tanner has emerged as a favourite son at Fairfax, where he also maintains a mostly superficial blog on its Business Day website. It certainly helps that he fits the profile of its metro mastheads’ core readership (university educated, optimistic, ideas-driven). But there is also growing evidence that the Tanner for Treasurer push is slowly spreading elsewhere.
Last week, Tanner took to the Q&A panel opposite his former front bench sparring partner Peter Costello and Oz opinion page editor Rebecca Weisser.
Here’s the key exchange:
REBECCA WEISSER: Now, could I just suggest that to my right here, I have an extremely talented man who should actually be the Treasurer of this country, and there is nobody and everybody in the Labor Party says this to me, they say it behind the scenes, of course, Lindsay should be running the economy, he’s the guy. You only have to watch Lindsay, the way you talk about the economy, tonight, but every time I see you, you clearly…
TONY JONES: Okay, you are thinking. You’ve made that point. You’ve neatly turned the argument around. This love-in is getting ridiculous, however.
LINDSAY TANNER: Peter and I will swap jobs and that will solve all these problems.
TONY JONES: Does Rebecca have a point?
PETER COSTELLO: Of course she does, Tony. Lindsay should be Treasurer and Rebecca ought to be the editor of The Australian and as for you, Tony, I’ve got Managing Director of the ABC all lined up for you.
SALLY WARHAFT: This would be under your prime ministership.
LINDSAY TANNER: Thank you very much for that Peter.
Compare this touchy-feely bonhomie with Swan’s performance on 19 February, when a ruffled Treasurer reiterated the government’s (really the IMF’s) line on the basic economic need for fiscal stimulus (granted, Swan was dealing with a belligerent buffoon in Joe Hockey and an audience stacked with right wingers owing to the ABC’s dubious ‘balance’ policy).
Tanner’s Q&A outing could be dismissed as jocular jousting. But in March last year, The Oz ran this gooey paean and ever since its support for Tanner has mimicked its 2005 campaign for Kim Beazley to take back the leadership from Mark Latham.
There are, of course, some good reasons to doubt Swan’s credibility. The Treasurer relentlessly reads from a dry-as-dust IMF script in the belief that 20-second sound bytes are the best weapon to keep the public onside. His recent claims that the Coalition has deliberately “voted for mass unemployment” was probably the most unedifying example of Media Unit-endorsed subterfuge.
But away from question time, Swan is no slouch in the intellectual stakes. His 2005 book Postcodes contains some interesting grassroots proposals, especially on financial stress, although in the latest debate the current Treasurer has decided not to reprise them, seemingly content to relentlessly re-hash the line of the day, which he is said to practice each morning in front of the mirror.
Tanner, too, has been bouncing ideas around in his head for eons. In his 2003 book Crowded Lives, he argued that relationships and community wellbeing is inevitably lost in the relentless drive towards deregulation. While Tanner is less enamoured with dry policy prescriptions like pump priming, he is much stronger on the links between the interpersonal relationships and the economy. In short, he has the potential to cut through.
Privately, Tanner has always coveted the nation’s top economic job, with rumours swirling prior to the 2007 poll that the legendary rift between Swan and Rudd might have elevated his standing. But for a variety of other reasons the Tanner for Treasurer push is likely to founder. There’s only a remote possibility that an incumbent government would switch treasurers when confronted with an imploding opposition flailing in the face of the financial crisis. There have also lingering concerns over Tanner’s stability in Melbourne, with the Greens lurking in the wings to snaffle the inner-city vote (although the man himself is said to be relaxed, with Green voters gradually migrating northwards to organic oases like West Brunswick).
In the final analysis it will be the factions, not the media, who will have the final say. While the numbers are less relevant in when it comes to allocating senior ministries, there is an historic allergy within the Right to letting lefties loose with the nation’s purse strings. Rumours of a Gillard campaign for Treasurer in the lead-up to the 2007 election was relentlessly exploited by the Coalition and there’s every reason to believe the fiscal irresponsibility line could be trotted out again.
Tanner is reportedly working 18 hour days, with his increasingly gaunt appearance a concern among friends and family. Some ALP insiders say he may have missed the boat after 16 long years in Parliament and it would certainly be a shame if the Member for Melbourne ended his career without the opportunity to test out his reservoir of ideas. But given the yawning gulf between Labor’s rhetoric and reality, and the global economy’s continued hold over domestic policy responses, it’s unlikely they will ever see the light of day — regardless of whether Tanner fulfills his university dreams to take over the Treasury.