Perhaps it was the act of unburdening himself about Kevin Rudd that gave Wayne Swan some communications mojo, as if he had finally shaken off the malign effects of two-and-a-half years of the talking points, clichés and workshopped phrases of the Rudd era. There wasn’t a “working family” or “tradie” in sight.

Whatever it was, Swan in his attack on mining magnates has produced something Labor has been sorely lacking, an agenda-setting moment that shifted the political debate, played his opponents off a break and sent a message about the government’s values.

John Howard produced such moments regularly and easily, setting loose issues to which the Left would react with froth-mouthed fury, not realising they were playing into Howard’s hands by linking him ever more closely to the values of middle Australia. Labor long appears to have thought that the political agenda could be controlled through set-piece policy events. Howard understood that it requires an ongoing conversation as well, and set out to shape that conversation to his own purposes.

Admittedly, it was easier for Howard: he had an array of right-wing commentators who would reflexively echo and serve as attack dogs for his agendas. Labor has no one to play that role for them.

But in targeting mining magnates, Swan hasn’t needed anyone else to reinforce his message — his opponents have done it for him. Andrew Forrest — that’d be the Forrest found by the Victorian Supreme Court to be “an untruthful witness” in 2001 — took out national newspaper ads and made the lazy play of boasting of his charity contributions. Swan nailed this immediately when he noted that was no substitute for paying tax. And then there was the reaction of Clive Palmer, a man who, despite his constantly laboured breathing, effortlessly demonstrates one of the consequences of f-ck-off levels of wealth — the eccentricity that consumes someone who no longer has to care what anyone thinks of them, their appearance or their statements.

The opposition complaining about “class warfare” was even better. The phrase “class warfare” is a dead giveaway that: 1.) you’re too lazy to do some actual thinking; 2.) you’re protecting the interests of privileged élites; and 3.) that you need to go read a history of the French Revolution or the Khmer Rouge to know what actual class warfare looks like. In any event, when it comes to the clash of ideas, “class warfare” is hopelessly outgunned by the recent arrival “the 1%”, rhetoric Swan has also tried to pick up on.

Swan couched his attack as part of a discussion of the government’s economic program, and of course there is the accompanying Monthly essay for those who want more in-depth, analytical abuse, and a social media forum as well. But, really, this was a political message. After all, Swan omitted from his analysis the most egregious statement of vested interest of all in recent memory, the comment from the king of the rent seekers, Mitch Hooke, who declared “it wasn’t necessary for Australians to be sharing in the benefits of the mining boom”.

But then, Hooke and his merry minions at the MCA, who helped dictate the final shape of the MRRT, have publicly recommended the passage of the tax. It would hardly do for Swan to lump Hooke in with the others.

It’s also a political message because politicians have been exploiting the idea of sinister groups seeking unmerited or illegitimate power ever since they first crawled from the primeval oceans (the fossil records shows the earliest examples of politicians looked quite different but had the same underdeveloped senses of perspective and hypertrophied egos of the modern species).

It was Howard and his cultural warriors who targeted “elites” who controlled major institutions and imposed their chattering, undemocratic, PC-and-snobbery based agenda on the rest of us, an altogether longer bow than anything Wayne Swan has managed to draw, suggesting that the ruling party and key sections of the media were hapless victims before a bunch of ABC journalists, academics and commentators.

(Along the way, curiously — and there’s a master’s thesis in this for some thoughtful politics student — the drinks associated with these sinister groups changed — it used to be “chardonnay socialists” in the ’80s, but like the puritans they are, this gave way to coffee, with the latté serving as an appropriate marker of unworldly know-it-allness, before soy milk replaced it as the current ornament of inner-city snobbery; c.f. the trajectory of white bread as cultural marker in the US).

But it was ever thus, and for all sides of politics: there’s always someone who shouldn’t have power trying to exercise it. Drawing attention to them is to exploit their perceived unpopularity and legitimise one’s own power as representative of the mainstream community. It’s just that the groups seeking to exercise illegitimate power vary in their means of influence. Some seek to do it through numbers and foreign control (Catholics), or through controlling finance (Jews), or secret conspiracies (the Masons, the Illuminati, the Knights Templer, the JFK assassins, the lizard people who replaced Obama’s brain).

Wait, what — am I seriously linking Swan and Howard to some of the craziest conspiracy theories in history?

It’s all arbitrary. All sorts of vested interests have access to power, secret access, based on their wealth, or capacity to threaten politicians, or control of key sectors. Why are the country’s richest private schools beneficiaries of massive government funding? Why do pharmacists remain inviolate from competition policy? Why is the government currently negotiating in secret a treaty aimed at imposing the agenda of the US copyright industry on Australian consumers? Why are heavily unionised sections of the manufacturing industry protected when those primarily composed of un-unionised or female workers lose out?

One person’s cabal is another’s legitimate interest. Major media companies have done far more damage to the public interest in countries such as the US and Australia than the Masons, the Illuminati and Romish priests put together, and invariably in secret, but have never made it into any politician’s rogue’s gallery, except Paul Keating and Mark Latham, crazy-brave or plain crazy politicians who make Swan’s sally against the Hutts the mining magnates look like a mutual appreciation society. Swan won’t even contemplate an inquiry into the banks he routinely rails against, not even when Joe Hockey calls for one.

It’s all politics. But, rarely from Labor these days, it’s good politics.

CORRECTION Bernard Keane writes: I originally included newsagents along with pharmacists as examples of groups “inviolate from competition policy”. Mark Fletcher of the Newsagency Blog points out that newsagents haven’t been protected from competition since 1999. Indeed. Sloppy work from me – my apologies. The copy has now been amended.

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Peter Fray
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