Gasp: Fiscal fight club

Australia's second bananas Joe Hockey, Chris Bowen and Wayne Swan are fighting for the last word in the fiscal blame game. Who will emerge triumphant?

It’s been said that behind every great man there’s a great woman. But in recent years it’s been equally true that behind every great leader is a cunning, crafty verbose Treasurer.

NB: Labor leaders might do well not to turn their backs to ambitious underlings for any extended period of time.

It’s a fact often overlooked that as well as having three Prime Ministers in three months between June and September, Australia also had three Treasurers: Wayne Swan, Chris Bowen and Joe Hockey.

And unlike the pointy Rudd-Gillard-Abbott triumvirate, all members of the Treasury trio remain in parliament. More than that, they all remain a vocal part of the nation’s fiscal shouting match.

That’s because the Treasurer has become even more crucial in recent years, as the GFC shifted a spotlight back onto economic management. Certainly, Tony Abbott’s transition from tribal leader to Prime Minister seems inconceivable without the efforts of his loyal attack dog Joe Hockey. And few critics of Julia Gillard go more than two breaths without also taking aim at Euromoney’s one-time Treasurer of the Year, Wayne Swan.

And as for Bowen?

Ah. Well he was there. For 83 days. Kevin Rudd seemed to like him, and his judgement’s pretty sound, right?

As much as every great triangle needs a third corner, so too does every great rivalry need a third wheel. A palate cleanser to restore the true focus of one’s vitriol, if you will.

And if it’s vitriol you seek, then it’s the Treasurer you need.

You see, the treasurer is the front line of economic rhetoric. He – and they have all been he’s to this point in history – are charged with wielding the twin swords of hysteria and hyperbole.

On Treasurer Island, fiscal prudence is only as important as fear-mongering. They’re shaping debates as much as they are hunting for savings.

This week’s development – of which Bowen was all but locked out of – is testament to this.

In moves that some commentators labelled tantamount to breaking his election promise of prudent fiscal management and a government that lives within its means, Hockey raised the nation’s debt ceiling by $200 billion to $500 billion, and only a day later announced an $8.8 billion injection to the RBA’s reserves.

Whether he knew it, this was Hockey crying havoc and the dogs of war were let slip – the dogs of Treasurer wars.

Hockey himself landed early blow on the former government. “This is the legacy of a bad Labor government,” he decreed, before shifting his target to Swan.

“I did not take a half billion dollar dividend out of the Reserve Bank in 2012-13 to try and deliver a budget surplus when I was asked not to and when I pledged that I would not. That was Wayne Swan.”

You get the feeling that Hockey’s immense joy at the removal of Julia Gillard was matched only by his great disappointment that he wouldn’t get the chance to do battle with Swan once more on the election battleground – and this time emerge triumphant.

People close to the situation say the Hockey-Swan duel swings intermittently between anger and affection, delivering Canberra it’s most poignant ‘will they or won’t they?’ pairing since Julia Gillard’s ascension to Prime Minister brought to a crushing halt her cross-bench flirtations with Tony Abbott.

True to form, Swan didn’t take Hockey’s words lying down – he took them with tea and biscuits from the comfortable view of the backbenches. In an op-ed piece, he wrote Hockey was relentless exaggerating the “debt crisis” and “budget emergency”.

“Joe Hockey is continuing to throw rocks from the cheap seats rather than manage a huge structural transition in our $1.5 trillion economy,” he said.

Then, in a development that must have inflated Hockey’s PR ego – there is considerably more room for it now the debt ceiling has been raised - former RBA board member Warwick McKibbin delighted in telling the ABC that Swan was an “economic vandal”.

“It wasn't that he may not have been asked to put more money in, but he was certainly asked not to take money out,” he said.

Swannie, this time taking to Twitter, dismissed the criticism, noting his extensive research on Wikipedia actually showed Labor’s fiscal record was pretty solid.

“No surprise conservative economist appt’d by Tory govt tries to rewrite Labor’s economic record,” Swan tweeted.

Sources told GASP it was all too much for shadow treasurer Chris Bowen into something of a tailspin, who treated staffers in his Fairfield electorate office to a poignant rendition of Moving Pictures’ What About Me?

Immediately after, Mr Bowen stood outside his office and hailed down any passing news crews like a drunkard hails a cab in the early hours of Saturday morning. It’s a long way from the Blue Room isn’t it, Mr Former Treasurer?

“At no point did the Reserve Bank of Australia ask the previous government for a top-up over and above their profits. They didn't ask Wayne Swan, they didn't ask me,” he declared.

Me. Yes, me – I’m a thing! And no-one asked me anything. Ah, the sweet glow of relevance.

To be continued…

Tweet of the week

Graph for Gasp: Fiscal fight club

One-line wonders

  • “Don't you think it was slightly hypocritical that you had Bill Shorten out there and Albanese talking about why we didn't have enough women, but correct me if I'm wrong, they're both blokes.” This week’s GASP gold star for observation goes to deputy Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
  • “With malice towards none, and generosity and charity to all, I bid my farewell.”  Who said outgoing Senator Bob Carr was too high-brow to relate to the common Labor voter?
  • “Tony Abbott is the Prime Minister for Science Denialism.” The PM would be wise not to let Greens leader Christine Milne near his business cards.

The last gasp

National director of the Liberal Party Brian Loughnane’s address to the National Press Club this week highlighted the endemic problem of the political debate in Australia. Parties are focusing all of their energy on being right, instead of being better.

The goal of any party, sitting anywhere political on the political spectrum, should not be to prove opposing parties wrong, but to provide a credible, better alternative.

The insinuation – or in many cases, explicit accusation – that an opponent’s policy is ‘wrong’ serves no useful purpose other than to smear.

Loughnane’s behaviour is likely not the exception but the rule, as national director of the Labor Party George Wright’s post-election address to the Press Club next week will surely prove.

But it does show exactly where this attitude is coming from: the very top. Vitriol is not a new ingredient in the national political debate, but it is an outdated one.