Wayne Swan, Clive Palmer and the gospel of wealth


Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth'The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.' Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth.

Australia's Treasurer, Wayne Swan, is flirting with populism. His target is a large one: Australia's mining, and to be exact, the big three, Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart.

His article in March's The Monthly is one of sentimental reflection: 'A decade ago, as I waited for my order outside a Maroochydore fish and chip shop, a tall, barefoot young man strolled past wearing a T-shirt that read: 'Greed is good. Trample the weak. Hurdle the dead.' Australia was the radical experiment, the egalitarian social laboratory where wealth 'made it to the bottom'.

Swan's essay does have certain overtones regarding wealth. Bertolt Brecht, in his adaption of Peter Gay's The Beggar's Opera, suggested two types of crime when it comes to a bank: founding one and robbing one. The latter is illegal because it breaks the law; the former is a tolerable theft. How much is society willing to tolerate?

Policy is not often made along such Brechthian lines, even if Swan is suggesting that it is. What matters to Swan is the dilemma of maintaining the idea, however illusory, that Australia remains the equal country. Australians, he urges, pride themselves 'on being a nation that's more equal than most'.

Egalitarianism, he argues, spurred on the stimulus packages of the Labor government, an effort to prevent economic dislocation. The 'middle class' society, as Swan refers to it, is what requires protection, though he can't resist political posturing: the idea that Australia still retains its 'egalitarian social contract' fixed by 'a fair and flexible industrial relations system'. (He then, contradicting himself, admits that there is economic disadvantage in pockets of Australian society.)

Swan's criticism is valid insofar as it's a warning about how various disproportionately powerful groups can unduly influence policy. Government's role, after all, should be a protective one.

The paradox here is that the 'vested' interests Swan has taken issue with are the ones that have been, if somewhat artificially, the creators of Australian wealth: mining, and, at points, banking. The latter's influence is particularly acute, given that some members of the banking 'big four' decided to avoid Reserve Bank policy on interest rates altogether. Swan might have made mention of that.

Mining, by virtue of its sheer power and prestige, has assumed the mantle of the untouchable, so much so that taxing its proceeds, at least to some, is deemed an unpatriotic act. Swan alludes to this when he speaks about 'vested interests' who have amassed such wealth they 'now feel they have a right to shape Australia's future to satisfy their own self-interest'.

An example of this can be gathered by the remarks of Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett. For Barnett, mining is beyond the meddlesome policies of government, an attitude that suggests total abdication to the forces of the commodity market.

'It's inappropriate for a Treasurer of Australia to be making personal attacks on individuals, whether they be wealthy or not.' The illusion of the egalitarian society must be maintained, smudges avoided, wrinkles hidden. 'Can I assure the public they [Swan's remarks] have no undue influence with the West Australian government.' The public are evidently not there to be protected.

In a country that lacks practitioners of Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth, a measure of balance towards wealth, one that entails responsible public policy and private initiatives, is required.

For Carnegie, who amassed his fortune in the age of the American robber barons, philanthropy was the responsibility of those with money, the means by which excessive quantities of wealth might be redistributed. Money, after all, did not come from nowhere.

The gospel, however, holds no purchase among the Palmers and the Rineharts. Indeed, Rinehart's father, the mining magnate Lang Hancock, showed little love for the human race, enticing 'no good half castes' to a central point for the collection of welfare checks, only to 'dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future'.

A balance has to be sought. Mining companies, given the enormous influence they have in Australian society, have responsibilities in managing their wealth. Governments are perfectly entitled to force that claim.

This is not to suggest that mining companies are inherently Brechtian 'criminals', though their behaviour might sometimes suggest that. Atlas Iron founder David Flanagan prides himself and his fellow miners as responsible tax payers and employers. 'And we get the same benefit as all other companies, and we get the same concessions as all other companies and we want to contribute to a health system' (ABC Sydney, 6 March).

What is lacking in Swan's polemic is where one goes after the pie has been distributed, equally or otherwise. When the mining magnates have nothing to mine, what then?

The debate should be taken further — to see how Australian wealth can be created in a world with limited commodities. The dangers of the banana republic, amidst the mining triumphalism, remain all too apparent, but that is a terror few, including Swan, are willing to contemplate.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth, Wayne Swan, Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer



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Existing comments

You read too deeply into swan's motives. All he is doing is protecting his own job and the pension wealth that goes with it . Survival desperation drives idiotic delusion .

John crew | 09 March 2012  

Essentially, wealth making is its own enemy. You're either despised because you're not a) charitable, b) excessively greedy or c) your success is usually the result of failures by others. The reaction of Rinehart et al to Swan's treatise is predictable ( the Right Wing Propaganda Machine The Australian calls it a divisive attack on those who risk (sic) everything for the good of many). With the exception of Forest who has moments of charitable pangs, the other two by their own behaviour are devoid of any redeeming features. They have simply plundered the earth to reap the nation's wealth. Unlike Buffett, Gates or Job they have not made ANY significant contribution to the greater good. And to suggest, as one of The Oz's correspondent did, that these people have taken risk to make the country rich is idiotic to the extreme. We already have an imbalance of media driven opinion making in this country, we don't need anymore misleading information on the state of wealth of a few greedy troglodytes. One thing is certain, the bullying tactics of Palmer & co will NEVER be tolerated in the US with their probing corporate laws. Does anyone remember the "bottom of the harbour" affair? Remember who was at the centre of it all? Finally, we all have to thank Howard for perpetuating the "gospel of wealth". We now have a generation of 20 - 30 something who grew up during the decade of greed under Howard's divisive regime.

Alex Njoo | 09 March 2012  

As always, what the Australian community needs is correct balance between competing groups. As Pope Benedict says , this should best be based on a social sense of fraternity and "gift" ie generosity of mind, always to try and put in more than you take out. We have to look at government to do what it can to facilitate this behaviour, and to ensure as far as it can this balance. Fair taxes are a part of that, and should ensure that wealth divides are not too extreme. Ensuring that the community gets a fair share of mineral wealth while allowing appropriate personal reward for those who create industrial activity in the sector is also a part of Government`s job. One also hopes that the rich will have sufficient good conscience to be philanthropic over and above paying fair tax; and their money can be very well used to do things that Government cannot or will not: endowing quality into museums, libraries , universities etc. In general American rich folk are very good at that, especially compared to Australians, though there are significant and valued exceptions! I would also add that the main problem Swan got into over the original mining tax was self-created: it was sold and explained very badly, and the Government`s media and public response to the mining magnates attack on it was abysmal.

Eugene | 09 March 2012  

I cannot offer a critique of Mr Swan's article in "The Monthly" as I haven't read it -- though I'd strongly suspect that it deserves better than "populism" or "idiotic delusion". I do, though, recall other things which I've read elsewhere about wealth. Such as, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also......You cannot be the slave both of God and money" [Matthew, 6]; or, "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven....it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" [Matthew, 19]. And by the way, Dr Kampmark, the author of "The Beggar's Opera" which Brecht and Weill re-wrote was JOHN Gay, not Peter.

John CARMODY | 09 March 2012  

How can anyone take anything Wayne Swan says seriously? His credibility should be a minus quantity. He has spent much of the last five years telling the Australian people what a great leader Kevin Rudd is. When it suits him he changes to become a Rudd enemy and detractor. He is a pragmatist at best, a liar at worst. Either way he should not be a factor in future Australian politics. Of course his very lack of integrity may be the very quality that ensures him continued politicaL clout.

grebo | 09 March 2012  

Wayne Swann is a very hard-working treasurer and undeserving of the insults of many commentators. This country has massive natural resources of iron and coal and those who mine them have the benefit of a skilled work-force made so by an education system which draws upon the taxes paid by those of use who have regular incomes. The benefit of this educated work-force to the miners is rarely mentioned. One wonders how much (if any in the case of Forrest up till now) the miners are prepared to put back to sustain such a productive human resource. I support strongly Swann's basic idea of insisting that massive wealth generates its own obligation to support in a big way the nation in which it is accumulated.

Mike Foale | 09 March 2012  

So long as we continue to refuse to question who owns most of the major assets in this country, and how they came to own them - usually inheritance, we will always be caught in the contradiction between wanting to create a more egalitarian society on the one hand, and needing to give free reign to the same "creators of Australian wealth" to provide us with jobs.

Conal | 11 March 2012  

"You read too deeply into swan's motives. All he is doing is protecting his own job and the pension wealth that goes with it . Survival desperation drives idiotic delusion ."

Your analysis is backwards. Palmer et. al. are trying to plant Tony Abbott and co in Swan and Gillards place. That is those with no ideas or conviction who will act as Palmer's puppets. After all Palmer is the biggest funder of the Liberal party.

If that means that Swan is protecting his job then good. His essay shows him as a man of ideas and conviction. Your cynical attempt at trivialising this does not work.

Ian Joyner | 17 March 2012  

I am not sure where you’re going with this line of argument. While it's important to look beyond the mining boom, the government is acting responsibly by taking and putting back some of the wealth into the economy with a MRT during a time of record profits.

Sandra Cotton | 25 March 2012  

Politicians should receive no wage.

Have free public housing rent free. For life. And pension like all others. ONLY.

Then lead their ideals. And enrich Australia.

Bano | 02 January 2015  

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