Before I get into the latest column there’s a small matter I need to address. Since I started writing for Tharunka quite a few people have been coming up to me and saying “Hey Oz, great articles man/you are a genius/how can I be you/can I marry you?” which is great but these comments are almost always followed with “What’s with the name of your column?”. It’s a completely valid question so I guess I should explain. There’s no real meaning behind the words “Ice Cream, Politics & Gossip Girl” other than the fact that they are things I like eating, reading and writing about and watching, respectively. I was very excited to be offered the opportunity to write regularly for this publication, but I’m not great with titles. So after much consternation we ended up with the current name, flogged from bio on Twitter. Even though this column has nothing directly to do with Gossip Girl I have taken on board suggestions to subtly weave its narrative into my arguments. Enjoy.
Wayne Swan is the Dan Humphrey of Australian politics. The poor little rich boy from the allegedly less privileged Upper West Side of Manhattan (read the ALP) who, despite having a solid grounding in the principles of fairness and equality, yearns to interact with the more wealthy clique at his school (the mining industry).
If you haven’t figured it out yet I’ve given up on subtlety and am now squeezing in as many Gossip Girl analogies as I can. For the uninitiated, Dan is one of the main characters on the show and the sexual tension between himself and his love interest Serena is a major part of the early seasons of the show. We’ll come back to Serena later.
Treasurer Swan, or “Lonely Wayne” (Dan was dubbed Lonely Boy by the show’s narrator), has recently come out swinging against the “vested interests” in this country that are, in his view, undermining good public policy development. In an article for The Monthly, Swan referred to wealthy mining interests such as Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart as a “poison”. He followed this up with an address to the National Press Club in Canberra accusing the big miners of destroying the Australian notion of a fair go.
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It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments Swan expressed, first in his essay and later on television and radio. Big corporations, particularly the mining industry, have exerted their influence in recent years by watering down legislation that takes aim at their wealth and power – the two best examples of this being the mining tax which was reduced from its originally proposed rate of 40% to 22.5% following a sustained campaigned waged by miners, and the original Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) which was scuttled entirely when big business used its proxies inside the Liberal Party to topple Malcolm Turnbull and install Tony Abbot.
There are many less obvious examples and in fact I would argue that it is almost impossible to find any government decision or major party policy that hasn’t been heavily influenced by business interests. So what I find ludicrous is not the notion that powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations have a massive say in decision making in this country but that Swan has come out and attacked them and that process.
The biggest problem I have with Swan coming out and roundly criticising miners for influencing “the process” is that he attempts to isolate himself from it. Wayne Swan, Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, is not some kind of victim or innocent bystander. He is one of the most central players in policy making in this country and everytime a decision is made to water down policy or backflip on a commitment, he should wear political flack for it and not shift responsibility onto unelected and unaccountable corporate interests.
Of course big advertising campaigns such as those waged against the government during the mining tax debate will pressure politicians to weaken their position. But surely the point of electing people to parliament, particularly on the progressive side of politics, is to make sure they resist that pressure, not bow down to it. Jim Cairns, a former Labor Deputy Prime Minister once said “It is far better to be defeated while attempting to implement Labor policies than to be defeated after surrendering them.” It’s a message the contemporary Labor party should listen too. If you’re going to sacrifice your principles and your policies because you’re scared of the miners, and then put the blame entirely on them, don’t be surprised when huge chunks of your base desert you.
The other main issue I have with Swan’s line of argument is that it attempts to sweep aside just how close the government is to business interests, by distracting people with fiery rhetoric. The day after Swan’s essay was published, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard had already started backtracking from the message by stating that “Wayne is talking about how the vast majority… of the business community work motivated by community interests and the national interest”. I assume this would include the construction sector which has “influenced” the government into retaining coercive interrogation powers that can only be used against construction workers giving them fewer rights than accused criminals.
Senior cabinet ministers also commented by pointing out that Swan was only talking about the “0.01%” of business, which I guess is why that despite the Treasurer’s anti-business rhetoric the government is planning on cutting corporate tax rates even further.
It’s a clever line the ALP is trying to walk – cosy up to big business while at the same time say some provocative things to try and convince your base you still don’t really like dealing with them.
And this is where we get back to the Gossip Girl analogy. For if Swan is indeed our Dan Humphrey, forever casting his gaze across Central Park, externally heaping shit on the upper crust of society while internally he would like nothing more than to be them, or at least hook up with them on occasion at one of Blair Waldorf’s parties, then we need a Serena van der Woodsen.
Serena personifies everything about the privileged few that Dan both loves and despises. Her wealth, incredible good looks and refined charm are a lure, but her aloofness and ignorance of what it’s like being a normal person make Dan uncomfortable. As much as it pains me to admit this, mainly because of my enormous crush on her, we do have our own Serena.
If Wayne Swan is Dan than there can be no doubt that Gina Rinehart is the Serena van der Woodsen of the Australian polity. The mining baron personifies Swan’s contradictory approach to dealing with business. Tell your close friends you don’t really like them, while you’re actually trying to perve on their legs during class and begging for a date.
A friend recently told me that it took him a season and a half of watching Gossip Girl before he realised Dan was supposed to be ‘poor’. I think after a term and a half of Swan as Treasurer we should ask some tough questions about his anti-business rhetoric not lining up with his pro-business policy agenda.