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1331 words

True believer

16 July 2009

The Coalition underestimates Wayne Swan at its peril, writes Norman Abjorensen

AT THE HEART of every government is a true believer, and it’s not usually the leader. It’s the one with an unwavering belief in the cause that transcends mere ideological positioning or even intellectual conviction; it is a total and uncompromising visceral commitment. Land a blow on this player and you deal a blow to the government’s very heart.

This is why Wayne Swan is forever in the Coalition’s sights; he’s the hard man, the super-committed, the true believer. It is not all that difficult to imagine Kevin Rudd as a Liberal; similarly Malcolm Turnbull could have been in the Labor Party. But Wayne Swan on the other side? Never.

Peter Reith was the real hard man in the former Coalition government, too often misread by Labor as the Howard government’s soft underbelly. He was the solid kernel of middle-class conservatism, unfailingly hostile to all things collective, all things Labor – and he had been so all his life. (He once delighted in telling me how he liked to bait leftish academics when he was at Monash by endlessly quoting from the Economist.) Howard, of course, was true blue, but in a telling comment in the Errington–van Onselen biography a former employer expresses surprise at Howard’s declared Liberal affiliations when he thought all along he was Labor. Of the other hard men in the Howard camp, Downer was simply an old Tory while Costello briefly flirted with Labor in his student days. But Reith never even blinked.

A Liberal MP said to me last week, referring to Swan: “He doesn’t like us, and he makes that clear. Hate is perhaps too strong a word, but it comes close.” Paul Keating had a touch of that, but while Bob Hawke liked to rail at the “Tories” from time to time, he was not above fraternisation. The true believers don’t do that. Labor’s Neville Wran in New South Wales refused even to acknowledge the string of Liberal leaders that came and went under his premiership. Before him, Jack Lang went even further and forbade his MPs from any social contact with the “enemy.”

One might normally expect the true believer to come from the Labor Party’s left, that self-appointed guardian of the party’s conscience. To some extent John Faulkner qualifies, but the left generally is on the outer within the ALP; it inspires derision more than anything else, as much from the Labor right as from the conservatives.

And this is what makes Wayne Swan not just different but also dangerous and very difficult for the Liberals to deal with. It was once easy for them to dismiss Labor firebrands as socialists and radicals, but Swan is neither, occupying in key respects their own ideological ground.

Swan is a firm believer in the market economy. He made this unequivocal in his 2005 book Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation, writing: “The best mechanism for increasing the prosperity of the whole population is the market. I believe in capitalism.” Yet he is also an unswerving adherent of Chifley’s famous light on the hill, drawing a sharp distinction between his position and that of the Liberals.

In Postcode he writes of the need for sound economic management to be placed in perspective: it is not an end in itself but a means toward an end – the better society. Labor, he warns, must never follow its opponents into the trap of turning politics into a mere exercise in accountancy. He insists that budgets are “moral documents” as much as they are economic statements – moral in the sense that they identify priorities. Whereas the Liberals used the quest for good economic management and the resulting prosperity as “an excuse for winding back government and rooting out the things that make that better society,” Labor never will.

Swan took an unusually close interest in his former shadow portfolio of family and community services, which he saw as the vehicle for dealing with the issues that were his very reason for entering politics – poverty and inequality. In the only known statement on the public record in which he took pity on his opponents, he wrote in Postcode how he sometimes felt sorry for Coalition ministers and shadow ministers in the portfolio area, who were given a “negative and nasty job – to chastise and stigmatise, and to fundraise from the poor through mindless cutting of programmes and services.”

What we have in Swan is an interesting and formidable combination of pragmatic bleeding heart and idealist, a hard man with a soft but politically impenetrable centre. If he perplexes his Liberal opponents, they can take some comfort in the fact that he has long perplexed those on his own side. In an early profile on Swan, the Australian Financial Review noted how the former state secretary of the Labor Party in Queensland came to Canberra with “a reputation as a hard man, a tough-minded headkicker.” It quoted those who had known him as having a range of opinions – all strongly expressed. To some he was “unscrupulous” as well as “vindictive”; to others he was “immensely capable,” “a good friend” and “highly respected.” He had been seen as instrumental in securing wins for Labor at the 1989 state election and in the 1991 lord mayoral election in Brisbane.

Swan’s arrival in Canberra in 1993 was just as talked about as his efforts in Queensland. He was one of the very few members of caucus, and a very junior one at that, who was not in awe of Paul Keating. He was more than willing in party meetings to share the view, which he had expressed in a report some years earlier, that federal Labor was out of touch with the people. In a pointed response, Keating went public about former state secretaries running their own agendas.

I interviewed Swan in his first week in parliament, and that meeting left an indelible impression. As I wrote in the Canberra Times, “Wayne Swan has eyes that size you up like gun sights. He is blunt about his ambitions, and forthright in his opinions. You don’t take his time lightly.”

It quickly became clear that while Swan was a Labor traditionalist in many ways, he had no time for the old party of backroom deals and especially the stolid dominance of the Trades Hall, which had for years rendered Queensland Labor moribund. He was also eager to dispel the notion that party officials were mere grey apparatchiks. It was a job, he explained, that is rooted in the community and enables the office-holders to get to know all sorts of people and players; you just cannot afford to be out of touch.

Swan, of course, has had no easy ride. He lost his seat in 1996 and had to fight his way back; he also fought a battle with cancer. After our first meeting in 1993 I said to a colleague that I had just looked into the eyes of a political killer. I thought for a while about where I had seen that same, sometimes disconcerting steely stare that seems to cut through you like a scalpel, and I soon remembered. It was Ted Kenna, the Australian VC winner who died only a few weeks back, whom I had interviewed in 1990. Different men, different times, different callings, but some special quality.

I have seen that look only once since: in the demeanour of the rugby player George Gregan awaiting a lineout: body tensed and coiled, eyes blazing with cold fire, determination personified.

Only a fool would underestimate Wayne Swan. It may well be that we have yet to see just how tough he is. •

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