Swan's witless fighting words

Prime Minister Gillard could do with a verbal swordsman of the same ilk as Paul Keating, and it's Bob Carr, not Wayne Swan, that is the most likely contender.

It hasn’t been a good week for the treasurer. Presumably when he wrote that essay for The Monthly it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, but the problem with monthly magazines is that their deadlines are a fair way in advance and things can change between sitting in the study on holidays, with a glass of red and Mr Google, to write it, and when the thing finally hits the newsstands much later.

As a soggy March enters its second week, any dreams Wayne Swan might have had of being a Fabian bugler rallying Australia’s silent majority against the noisy and privileged few have evaporated.

When the prime minister fronted the press yesterday to announce a love affair with business leaders in the form of a new business advisory council to reduce regulation, the treasurer was otherwise engaged. The assistant treasurer and finance minister made up the mnage a cinq, and the PM utterly skewered her deputy by highlighting the exception to his main point rather than the main point itself.

When asked whether Wayne Swan’s attacks on a couple of high wealth individuals were "divisive and unhelpful”, she replied: "Wayne Swan is talking about how the overwhelming, vast majority – indeed he uses the term ’99 per cent’ of the business community (are) motivated by community interests and the national interest and we’ve just seen that on display today.”

As the prime minister well knew, the point of the essay was not to praise Caesar but bury him: "To be blunt,” he had written, "the rising power of vested interests is undermining our equality and threatening our democracy.”

He wrote that he was referring to the "0.01 per cent”, but actually he seemed to be just talking about the 0.000001 per cent – that is, just three people: Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer, beneficiaries of Australia’s booming terms of trade. He wrote that they are: "blind to the national interest, and … pour their considerable personal fortunes into advertising, armies of lobbyists, dodgy modelling and corporate and commercial manoeuvring designed to influence editorial decisions.” Like unions, and political parties.

Julia Gillard’s pointed disinclination to discuss that stuff, and instead focus on Swan’s side-of-the-mouth comment in the 32nd paragraph that 99 per cent of business people want the best from Australia, was devastating.

But the confused, rambling complaint about the advertising and lobbying budgets of Rinehart, Forrest and Palmer was not the worst thing about Wayne Swan’s essay. The worst thing was that it was poorly written, and there is no excuse for that. The prose was leaden and riddled with clichs, devoid of wit and insight.

In fact the key result of Wayne Swan’s foray into long form journalism, apart from generating some useful news stories in the gap between the ALP leadership ballot and the floods, was to highlight the prime minister’s need for Bob Carr.

Bob Hawke had Paul Keating as his verbal swordsman, crucifying opponents and charming the media with his unique blend of invective and wit, woven through with often brilliant insight. John Howard had Peter Costello, perhaps not quite in Keating’s class, but very good indeed.

Wayne Swan should be that person for Julia Gillard, but he just isn’t. He’s dreadful, let’s face it, and The Monthly essay was a case in point.

Having a brilliant deputy and/or treasurer is vital for the pedestrian PM. Bob Hawke wasn’t pedestrian but economics wasn’t his strength. John Howard was ordinary in every way and Peter Costello was his flash Jack.

It’s already clear that Bob Carr could be that person for Prime Minister Gillard, although he has the disadvantage of not being in the Lower House for question time and being neither treasurer nor deputy PM.

But when it comes to oratory and writing essays, the new foreign minister will have it all over the treasurer, not to mention the old foreign minister. Swan might find himself watching more and more prime ministerial press conferences on the TV in his office as Bob Carr gradually slips into an important cabinet role as the Minister For Being Devastatingly Witty and Charming.

Follow @alankohler on Twitter.

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