The good fight

"I looked up to see this poster while phoning into a cabinet meeting at the height of the GFC from the basement of the son of a senior official'.
Tanya Plibersek

While Joe Hockey was preparing to deliver his first budget in May, a budget that unravelled Australia’s social fabric, he listened to a song called Best day of my life by American Authors. The “best day of my life” for Joe Hockey was the day he cut the pension, it was the day he broke the promise “no cuts to health, no cuts to education and no new taxes.” Wayne listens to music on budget days too. And you could have guessed if you already know Wayne, his music was “Born to Run”, the song Bruce Springsteen says was the “dividing line between the carefree concerns of his youth and the political concerns of his adulthood.”

Wayne wrote about the song, and about his musical hero in his 2012 John Button lecture, which is an appendix to this book. He quoted Bruce Springsteen:

… the stress and tension of my father’s and mother’s life that came with the difficulties of trying to make ends meet – influenced my writing. I had a reaction to my own good fortune. I asked myself new questions. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I’d grown up alongside of.

That, in a nutshell, is Wayne Swan too. When he was framing his six budgets, Wayne never forgot the people he grew up alongside of. And it was those people, his brothers and sister, the men he knew who lost their jobs in the last recession, even Craig Midgley, who he had met at the Penrith Community Cabinet who are the constant characters in this book. Wayne says of Craig Midgley:

stuck up his hand and spoke of the financial pressures on families like his, on a reasonable income but struggling to make ends meet… I sat there thinking, ‘What do we say and do for people like Craig Midgley if there’s a global economy meltdown that pushes unemployment through the roof?’.

In The Good Fight, Wayne tells the compelling story of how he and the government responded to the greatest economic crisis to befall Australia in 80 years.

But it’s not just about how Australia avoided recession. It’s about why Wayne cared so much about keeping Australians working. The how and the why. This book is as much a reflection of Wayne’s values as it is about the technical aspects of the decisions that he took which gave Australia the stand-out economy during the Global Financial Crisis.

Wayne describes inheriting an Australian economy challenged with growing inflation. He came to office determined to cut spending to tackle the inflationary challenge he’d been left by the profligacy of the Howard years: the permanent spending paid for by temporary windfalls from the mining boom; the infrastructure bottlenecks; rising interest rates and rising cost of living. Instead, just months into his new role the whispers started coming from the United States that their economy might be in trouble. He describes the uncertainty, the worry, the difficulties of preparing for the worst while not causing a panic that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The account of the GFC in the Good Fight has more tension than your average thriller – at least for budget tragics like us. You really get the sense from reading this book how close Australia came to the brink – waiting for the quarterly number which would tell us whether we had gone into recession like the rest of the OECD. And in reading you recall the querulous opposition to stimulus – Joe Hockey saying we should follow the New Zealand path, into recession presumably. And Tony Abbott sleeping through crucial votes on the stimulus packages.

Of course Wayne was a victim of his own success. He never received, and the Rudd and Gillard governments never received, credit from the public for the economic management that protected Australia from the recession. You don’t feel the bullet you dodged. But there is no word of complaint on that score in this book. Wayne never complains that while the world was feting him as “finance minister of the year” the Liberals and their media cheer squad were calling for less action to protect jobs and keep the Australian economy from falling into recession.

And in keeping with this, Wayne’s greatest failing, throughout the book he gives credit to others for the internationally lauded success of Australia’s stimulus: he credits Ken Henry with the “go early, go hard, go households” advice; he talks at length about Kevin Rudd’s tireless work to make the G20 the premier decision making body for co-ordinating global efforts to fight the GFC; he speaks warmly about his public servants and personal staff; and he gives credit to any number of business figures in Australia and around the world for the insights that they gave him into the real economy globally. He always talks about what Australians did to avoid the GFC, giving credit to working people, to their employers, to unions and to others but never taking it for himself.

Wayne’s greatest failing may be his modesty. There are times when this book actually made me cringe because Wayne’s criticism of himself and the errors he believes he made are so excoriatingly honest. I know his critics will selectively quote his own insights and use his self-awareness and honesty as ammunition against him. If only Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott had one tenth of Wayne’s insight and honesty. Instead we’ve got this bombastic defence of a deeply unfair and unpopular budget; all bluster and machismo; none of Wayne’s attention to detail. In fact it struck me at the time the fact that Joe Hockey didn’t know that chronically ill patients would pay the $7 GP co-payment shows how little attention he paid to the detail of his own budget.

You get an incredible sense from the book about how seriously Wayne took each budget. Each one was prepared for the times: to set up the Australian economy for the challenges ahead.  You can feel the weight of responsibility on his shoulders as he works to “get the big calls right”. The challenge presented by the GFC is rightly the main concern of this book, as it was the main preoccupation of our first years in government. Wayne talks of Rahm Emmanuel’s advice: “never waste a crisis”. Our stimulus was designed first and foremost to keep people working, to keep confidence up, to keep the economy ticking over. But it also had the benefit of upgrading every school in Australia, building new public transport, building public housing and any number of other good things besides.

Wayne talks also of how important it is was to walk and chew gum at the same time. Our pre-occupation with the GFC didn’t let us off the hook when it came to the other big reforms that had been so neglected during the Howard years: we delivered the biggest increase to pensions ever; the National Disability Insurance Scheme, two reforms that were delivered by Wayne in partnership with his good friend Jenny Macklin. The Health Reforms which Kevin Rudd as PM and Nicola Roxon worked so hard on; and the Gonski School Funding reforms begun by Julia Gillard as Education minister and that were finally delivered by Peter Garrett. All of these most important reforms for Australia’s future.

Wayne’s recalls Keating’s advice that fighting for, and achieving, the big, transformative national schemes like superannuation is what politics is all about. And of course sometimes those big changes are very hard. In 2010, as he thought about the importance of introducing a Resource Super Profits Tax, he remembered the advice he’d heard many years earlier from his first boss when he came to Canberra almost 40 years as a political adviser. Bill Hayden had told him that the long-term reforms are almost always fiercely contested, and he said “you rarely get them to stick the first time around. You have to persevere and persevere. Medicare and Medibank are the classic examples.”

In decades to come this book will be studied to understand how, almost uniquely among developed countries, Australia avoided recession during the time of the Global Financial Crisis. You could use it as a text book for Keynesian economics. But there’s another question answered here too. Wayne says in his Button Lecture that Springsteen’s songs ask an abiding question: “when are ordinary people – the people who get up in the morning, work hard and look after their families, going to get a fair go?” Wayne’s six years as Treasurer were about answering that question.


Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. This is the text of her speech on launching Wayne Swan, The good fight, Allen & Unwin, on Monday 18 August 2014.


 

Suggested citation
Plibersek, Tanya, 'The good fight', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 6, September 2014.<http://evatt.org.au/news/good-fight.html>