Leaving politics usually works wonders for people’s health, and so it was that a younger, more cheerful Wayne Swan bounced onto the stage at the University of Technology, Sydney last night to talk about his latest book, The Good Fight.
Swan, of course, is still an opposition backbencher, but he has had a distinguished 19-year career in politics, including six years as treasurer and three years as deputy prime minister. Writing the book, which focuses mainly on the Labor government’s response to the global financial crisis and the leadership issues, has obviously put him in a very good mood, and it was with a flourish that he signed my copy last night, “Keep up the good fight”.
Swan’s tome joins a longish list of other political books released this year. Paroled from public life, Tony Windsor (through his biographer Ruth Rae), Rob Oakeshott, Greg Combet and Swan can now speak freely, settling a few old scores (hooray) and putting their side of the story. Anyone wanting to know more about the topic du jour — how to get legislation through a crossbench — should read the Windsor/Oakeshott accounts. Their stories of the ceaseless negotiation and compromise needed to get to get almost 600 pieces of legislation passed in a hung Parliament are instructive, and don’t seem to include threats or bullying.
It was a packed event last night, co-hosted by dual think tanks the McKell Institute and the Chifley Research Centre, and, due to its location, full of university students, which made a welcome change from the usual middle-aged audience (myself included) at political events. If Generation Y can turn out in a downpour to hear a former treasurer, Australian Financial Review journalist Laura Tingle and economist Dr John Edwards discuss economic policy, perhaps there is hope for the future.
“Given a choice between political damage and economic damage, ‘I will take political damage every day,’ he said.”
Swan’s short speech was preceded by a short video containing a few career highlights. The best bit is a shaky iPhone video of a hoodie-clad Swan rallying the troops at a late-night party at The Lodge, wineglass in hand, on the night of Rudd’s return. In it, he says that “every one of you has been part of changing the country. There was a speed bump on the road tonight, but the purpose of why we are here, of what we do and why we get up early in the morning, work hard, go and do it again, hasn’t changed a bit … When we leave here tonight, never forget why we came here and what we are doing. It’s not about us; it’s about what we want for others.”
Swan hasn’t held back on the topic of Rudd in the book, saying he had an “unstable personality”, adding that “Kevin’s treatment of people was extraordinarily vindictive and juvenile, and it was frequently on display”.
Like many others, the former treasurer believes that Rudd’s leaking against Gillard in the 2010 election campaign cost Labor seats and deprived the first female prime minister of the chance to govern in her own right:
“All of his subsequent treachery pales into insignificance compared to what he and his agents did in the 2010 election campaign. The authorised briefing of Laurie Oakes about alleged conversations … on pensions and climate change was an act of treachery worthy only of someone of the standing of Billy Hughes as a Labor rat. It was a miracle that we actually survived the election. The formation of a minority government only prevailed because of Julia Gillard’s negotiating skills.”
The electoral carnage of the 2010 election was largely the work of Kevin Rudd, Swan said:
“He mounted no less than three leadership challenges (one aborted) during Julia’s tenure. From 2010 to 2013, he resembled a grand chess master using people as his pieces, playing with the fate of the great Labor party and the labour movement, sitting above it all orchestrating strategies that put the personal before the politics. His legacy from this is the eternal enmity of many Labor supporters.”
Swan continues in the book: “we should always be suspicious of leadership candidates prone to grandiosity, contemptuous of the movement and who want to get ahead through bullying and constant alarm”.
Last night’s event was more focused on economics, however, with Laura Tingle, a must-read in the Canberra press gallery, welcoming us to “policy nerd central”.
The three discussed Labor’s response to the GFC and the subsequent challenge of fulfilling an election promise to return the budget to surplus. Although Australia weathered the GFC in good shape thanks to the stimulus package, by the end of 2012 Treasury forecasts had revealed that revenue growth had collapsed so dramatically that a return to surplus was a long way off.
In 2012-13, government spending had been trimmed to 24.1% of GDP, well below the levels of the past few decades. However, despite a substantial decline in the deficit, the fall in revenue growth meant Swan had to front the media to announce that the surplus would not be achieved. Of course, there was an uproar, and this broken promise became a cornerstone of the Coalition’s 2010 election campaign.
But Swan is unrepentant, saying: “when things change, so do I. What do you do?”
Given a choice between political damage and economic damage, “I will take political damage every day,” he said.
In response to a question from Jim Parker, who writes popular blog The Failed Estate, Swan said the “the hyperpartisanship in Canberra [was] damaging our economy and our political institutions”.
The future is not over for taxes on carbon and resources, he said, as “these are issues which have to be dealt with, and we may not get it right the first time”.
Labor MP Michelle Rowland stood behind me in the queue to get her book signed, followed by a very long line of UTS students. No wonder Tony wants to cut university funding.