Swan's miners line is out of tune

According to Wayne Swan, three mining billionaires threaten the very fabric of Australia’s democracy, economy and society. It's hard to see any evidence for this.

SmartCompany

Wayne Swan started his attack on Australia’s mining billionaires earlier this year with a scathing essay in The Monthly magazine.

Tonight he takes to the stage with an all-singing, all-dancing lecture aimed at exactly the same targets – and this time he’s got the backing of The Boss, iconic US singer Bruce Springsteen.

Swan won’t deliver the John Button lecture (named in honour of the legendary Labor politician), but in a move designed to get him maximum publicity, the speech has been printed in most major newspapers today.

The lecture is entitled ‘Land of Hopes and Dreams’, and if that sounds vaguely American to you then good – Swan says the speech is about talking in a "very personal way about some of the values that have underpinned these speeches and about some of the influences that have shaped those values”.

You can read the full speech here, but let me summarise Swan’s influences for you in two words: Bruce Springsteen.

Swan’s lecture includes countless Springsteen references (including the fact that Swan plays Springsteen’s hit Born to Run every Budget night), a quote from a Springsteen interview and four sets of lyrics from Springsteen songs.

To ram home the point that Springsteen has had a huge influence on Swan’s life, his daughter Erinn will perform a Springsteen song before Wayne takes the stage.

Now, I like Bruce Springsteen and Thunder Road is one of my favourite songs. And I think it’s fascinating to hear about the influences of our major public figures – particularly where the passion for a subject shines through, as it does with Swan. He really, really, really loves the Boss.

But like his essay in The Monthly, the central message of Swan’s speech still doesn’t quite add up.

To me, Swan’s speech can be summarised as this: Three mining billionaires threaten the very fabric of Australia’s democracy, economy and society. If they are not curtailed, we risk dividing our society such that there are "just a few at the top and teeming millions at the bottom, with hardly anyone in-between”.

Once again, he singles out Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart, and argues that through their recent actions they are "are seeking to diminish the ideals on which our country is built.”

It’s worth quoting from Swan’s lecture at length:

"Take Clive Palmer. He came out in a blaze of self-promotion and expensive billboards announcing he would try to unseat me from the electorate of Lilley. (Ironically, his political campaign bore exactly the same slogan as his mining company bears.) It was a naked threat to use his massive wealth to overturn the government's tax policies. Of course, he has since skulked away from that fight in an epic display of political cowardice, but has also promised he'll be seeking LNP pre-selection in a different seat, so his efforts to use his immense wealth to buy influence through the LNP and force his way into the Parliament continue apace.

"Or take Andrew Forrest. Within days of my Monthly article he deployed his wealth to buy full page ads in national newspapers to insist he was not deploying his wealth to have a disproportionate say in our nation's future. And now he's bankrolling a major High Court challenge to overthrow the Minerals Resource Rent Tax that the vast bulk of the mining sector has itself agreed to pay.

"Or take Gina Rinehart. She is baldly seeking the power to manipulate public opinion by buying Fairfax Media and explicitly refusing to sign the company's charter of editorial independence. As veteran economic journalist Ross Gittins – who has got stuck into me plenty of times over the years – observed: "I'm not particularly keen on the idea of anybody telling me what I'm allowed to say about the mining industry."

"So, one tycoon is using his money to challenge the principle of fair taxation through electioneering. A second is using his money to challenge it through the courts. And a third is using her money to challenge it by undermining independent journalism. Parliament, the Constitution, independent journalism: all three are fundamental pillars of our democracy, being used as their playthings, supported every step of the way by the Leader of the Opposition.”

Leaving aside the fact that Swan doesn’t seem to be able to recognise that Clive Palmer is mercilessly trying to get a rise out of the Treasurer, and leaving aside the fact that the Swan must surely take the blame for the way the mining tax was created and sold, Swan is entitled to his own opinions.

What I don’t quite get is why three transparently self-interested entrepreneurs, using legitimate methods to disagree with the government, could turn Australia into an economy of haves and have-nots like that which has developed in the US.

No one wants an economy divided between rich and poor, but is this really happening in Australia? As Swan points out in his lecture, "while median household wealth in the US declined by more than 30 per cent between 2004 and 2010, here in Australia it has increased by more than 20 per cent over the same period”.

Are any of the actions of Clive Palmer or Gina Rinehart or Andrew Forrest really putting this growth – which came without a mining tax, of course – in peril?

Swan makes the argument that any threat to the mining tax is a threat to "stymie economic reform which aims to spread opportunities to others”.

But if Tony Abbott was to win government and rescind the tax as promised, would we really be plunged into a Sprinsteenian nightmare of ghost towns and ghettos? It’s very hard to see.

Maybe I am naive. Perhaps Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart could seize control of Australia’s society and economy.

But what does Swan suggest we should do to stop this potential scenario? Do we stop certain people from running for parliament on the basis of their wealth and views? Do we restrict access to the legal system if people are too wealthy? Do we limit media ownership based on wealth or political leanings (sorry, Rupert Murdoch)?

Those are clearly undemocratic ideas and ones Wayne Swan could never support. But he doesn’t offer any practical solutions in his lecture, so it’s hard to say exactly what he thinks should be done – other than speaking up (or singing).

Swan’s lecture is a lovely journey through the Springsteen back catalogue, but offers no solutions to fix a problem (mass inequality) that Swan himself says doesn’t exist.

It’s hard to see it as anything other than a colourful, tuneful spray against three people that Swan clearly dislikes and disagrees with.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the idea that Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest imperil "parliament, the Constitution, independent journalism” is just Dancing in The Dark.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

This article first appeared on SmartCompany on August 1. Republished with permission.

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