Wayne Swan on inequality and politics

The Australian DPM and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, has written a fascinating piece in The Monthly: ‘The 0.01 Per Cent: The Rising Influence of Vested Interests in Australia‘.

Today, when a would-be US president, Mitt Romney, is wealthier than 99.9975% of his fellow Americans, and wealthier than the last eight presidents combined, there’s a global conversation raging about the rich, the poor, the gap between them, and the role of vested interests in the significant widening of that gap in advanced economies over the past three decades.

Rachel Maddow had an excellent infographic comparing Romney’s wealth with that of former Presidents. To say he’s mega-rich is an understatement.

Our own John Key has an estimated net worth of US$38.7 as of 2010, which ranks him as the 21st richest head of state or government, just behind King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Is that in of itself a problem? Is John Key a bad person because he is rich? No, of course not. It is however, a sign of the times.

Australia’s fair go is today under threat from a new source. To be blunt, the rising power of vested interests is undermining our equality and threatening our democracy. We see this most obviously in the ferocious and highly misleading campaigns waged in recent years against resource taxation reforms and the pricing of carbon pollution. The infamous billionaires’ protest against the mining tax would have been laughed out of town in the Australia I grew up in, and yet it received a wide and favourable reception two years ago. A handful of vested interests that have pocketed a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic success now feel they have a right to shape Australia’s future to satisfy their own self-interest.

So I write this essay to make a simple point: if we don’t grow together economically, our community will grow apart.

Of course, rewards should be proportionate to effort, recognising the hard work and entrepreneurship that create wealth and employment. We should not seek pure equality, but we do need to combat the types of disparities in opportunity that damage our society. That’s why providing more people with a good education and a decent job with fair rights and conditions should be an economic as well as a moral goal.

So what does that have to do with the influence of money in politics?

I fear Australia’s extraordinary success has never been in more jeopardy than right now because of the rising power of vested interests. This poison has infected our politics and is seeping into our economy. Though these vested interests have not yet prevailed, every day their demands get louder.

Politicians have a choice: between exploiting divisions by promoting fear and appealing to the sense of fairness and decency that is the foundation of our middle-class society; between standing up for workers and kneeling down at the feet of the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers.

Australia’s future in the Asian Century will rely on retaining a strong, united, middle-class society. We will need a nation which calls on everyone’s skills; which is tolerant not resentful; which recognises the need for public investment in skills, infrastructure and education; and which continues to extend a social licence to the market so Australia’s flair for entrepreneurship, innovation and free trade can continue to create more wealth for all of us.

Racial issues in Australian politics fascinate me. I’ve heard stories from friends about the calls they hear on rural talkback radio about boat people, the intervention and Julia Gillard herself. The word bigot isn’t strong enough.

But this is not a problem unique to Australia. When there is general public support for some of the filth that people like Paul Henry feed on, we have a problem. I bet the Government were thrilled when Sue Bradford came out attacking their welfare reforms.

Swan concludes…

To me, the most significant question in politics when I started out in the late ’70s, when I wrote Postcode, and when I go to work tomorrow, is what we use our prosperity for. It’s not just about putting dollars in people’s pockets, but about building a better society; a society that creates wealth and spreads opportunity, a society that lifts up the worst-off and gives everyone a decent shot at a decent life.

When we were confronted with the biggest economic downturn in 75 years, our egalitarian values underpinned our response. Our stimulus package was designed to protect jobs and business. Our unemployment rate is now around half that of Europe and our economy is 7% larger than it was before the GFC, while other developed economies have yet to make up the ground they lost.

And here in New Zealand, National’s great plan to deal with the GFC was a worthless job summit.



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