Wayne Swan runs the Treasury, shapes the budget and guides the good ship Australia through the stormy waters of financial and economic crises. So it’s no surprise that he’s our most powerful Money Mover.

But he doesn’t really deserve to be.

Until this week, when he won Euromoney’s World’s Greatest Treasurer Award, we were struggling to find anyone to praise his performance. We googled the phrase “Wayne Swan is doing a good job as Treasurer” and got no results. We chopped off the words “as Treasurer” and the count climbed to eight, but five of those were prefaced by the word “not”, and another came from Gerard Henderson.

Nor did the tally improve when we canvassed the views of economists, former treasurers and even Swan’s mates.

One former Labor colleague told The Power Index “he’s hopeless”.

Mark Latham, the man who put him in the job, by making him shadow treasurer in 2004, was similarly scathing, branding him “insipid”, “unfamiliar with basic economic terminology”, and beset by “nerves and anxiety”.

Cheryl Kernot, who comes from Queensland and knows Swan well, told The Power Index: “People in Canberra don’t think he’s good, even on the Right. There’s lots of mutterings behind the scenes. And he’s been appallingly weak in supporting Julia Gillard on the mining and carbon taxes.”

Finally, a former treasurer lamented: “The Treasurer’s words are gold, much more important to the markets than those of the prime minister. But I don’t think anyone has told Swanny that. He’s gone into Treasury as if he’s still on the campaign trail.”

So is he as bad as his critics say, or is he as good as his gong? Answer, he’s competent at best. He has no formal economic training, few skills as a salesman, no reforming zeal and almost zero star quality: he’s a natural understudy to leading actors such as (Paul) Keating and (Peter) Costello.

Indeed, Swan might be better suited to running a suburban bank branch or doing the accounts at a local RSL than running the country. So how on earth did he get the job, given that he lacks the necessary qualifications?

The immediate answer is that he managed Kim Beazley’s unsuccessful tilt at the Labor leadership in 2004. And this — instead of consigning him to life on the backbenches — made him front runner for the shadow treasurer’s job. Latham wanted to appoint Julia Gillard, but was warned against having a left-winger, and needed to keep the party sweet. So Swan got the job instead. But he still beat Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and Lindsay Tanner across the line. So how did he manage that?

Beazley’s support is one possible explanation. Bill Ludwig and the Australian Workers Union is another. As Gillard pointed out in a fawning speech to the AWU conference last February, the Treasurer is “a long-time friend” of the union and its 77-year-old boss. Swan joined the union almost 30 years ago as a Labor staffer and rode its coat tails to power in Queensland. He ran election campaigns for Premier Wayne Goss in 1989 and 1992, and was appointed ALP state secretary in 1991 (with AWU support). From there, he moved into federal parliament for the Brisbane seat of Lilley in 1993.

Insiders say the one-time university lecturer has always fancied himself as a mover and shaker. Cheryl Kernot remembers him being on Beazley’s elite strategy committee about 2000, even when he was a lowly shadow minister. And a former Beazley staffer recalls him and Stephen Smith being “always in the office, talking to Kim, wasting everybody’s time”.

“He was always friendly and likeable,” the staffer recalls, “I just don’t think he added very much.”

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW