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Wayne Swan, Clive Palmer and the gospel of wealth

  • 09 March 2012

'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,