Friday, March 9, 2012

A wedge of Swans in full flight

Submitted to Green Left Weekly as with many of my articles...

Media watchers should be forgiven for a degree of confusion over the series of statements by Federal Treasurer and deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, in the last two weeks.

He began the month with a Press Club address, published in The Monthly’s March edition entitled “The 0.01%” where he attacks “the rising power of vested interests” – naming mining magnates Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart – for “undermining our equality and threatening our democracy.”

Then News Ltd broke the incredible story that Greenpeace is seeking donations to campaign against coal industry expansion.

Suddenly Swan was leaping to the defence of the big miners, calling the anti-coal movement "irrational", "deeply irresponsible" and "destructive.

As LaTrobe University’s David Day wrote in a Fairfax News opinion piece, “On Monday, Treasurer Wayne Swan assailed coal magnate Clive Palmer for using his wealth to influence government policy. On Tuesday, Swan attacked environmental organisation Greenpeace for threatening Palmer's wealth.”

What’s Swan actually on about? Is he for or against the miners?

Swan was a key player in the move to ditch Rudd and instal Julia Gillard in his place. This occurred on the back of a $22 million mining industry advertising campaign against Rudd’s proposed mining tax.

Perhaps quite innocently, The Monthly March edition also contains Rhys Muldoon’s account of Parliament House on the night of Kevin Rudd’s deposition.

“Gillard’s office… was filled with men I’d never seen before. Not one. Standing there I received an SMS that Gillard and Swan had been “given the nod” by the three big mining companies – Xstrata, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton – beforehand, letting it be known that the ads attacking the government for its proposed tax on miners’ super profits would be pulled.”

Now Energy and Resources minister Martin Ferguson backed Rudd’s recent challenge to Gillard. It’s reported that he and Swan aren’t best buddies over the Rudd affair. Is there a divergence in policy over mining too?

Ferguson’s department has prepared a white paper on the future of energy which suggests that coal exports can quadruple and LNG exports triple.

As a Quit Coal activist posing as “Twiggy Palmock, CEO of Extratum Mining” put it in a comedic interjection at a Melbourne presentation on the Energy White Paper, “Thank you Mr Ferguson, for being such an effective puppet for the fossil fuel industry.” The interjection was accompanied by “a frack of Fergusons” as a group of supporters stood silently in Martin Ferguson facemasks.

Thank You Mr Ferguson! from Quit Coal on Vimeo.

Is Ferguson the black coal-mining sheep of the Labor caucus? Is he defending the miners when the “Clean Energy Future” carbon price package and the mining tax are attacking them?

Sinclair Davidson, of the pro-mining industry Institute for Public Affairs says that Swan calls the mining tycoons “rent seekers.” This, he explains, is “the economists' ultimate insult.”

But nowhere in his essay does Swan use the term “rent-seeker”. Let’s look at what Swan actually wrote about the big miners in The Monthly.

He attacks those “who pour their considerable personal fortunes into advertising, armies of lobbyists, dodgy modelling and corporate and commercial manoevring designed to influence editorial decisions.”

He suggests Gina Rinehart is buying into Fairfax Media “in an attempt to wield greater influence on public opinion and further her commercial interests at a time when the overwhelming economic consensus is that it’s critical to use the economic weight of the resources boom to strengthen the entire economy.”

If you strip away all Swan’s talk about “middle class australia” and the “social contract”, this is the essence of what the mining tax is about.

Socialist tax academic John Passant describes Labor’s mining tax as “a redistributive measure from a very profitable section of capital to all of capital through company tax cuts.”

There is no government conspiracy to stop either the profits or the pollution of the mining sector. Labor needs to appear to do something to share the mining boom wealth around. That’s why the public foray into apparent criticism of “vested interests”.

But Swan’s agenda is not about taking from the 1% to give to the 99%. It’s certainly not about protecting the environment. It’s about taking from the 0.01% to give to the remainder of the 1% - the 0.99%. It’s a helping hand for business, not for the battlers.

If the collective noun for a group of Martin Fergusons is a “frack”, there are several options for Swans, according to wikipedia. While they are on the ground, the term is “bank” – an appropriate term for the treasurer, perhaps. Swans in flight are referred to as a “wedge”.

In politics, a “wedge” is an issue “which splits apart or creates a "wedge" in the support base of one political group” according to wikipedia.

If the Australian population come to understand the hypocrisy that is behind the Labor government’s attitude to mining and climate issues, Labor will indeed be wedged and we may well see Swan in flight.

That’s why he’s publicly making statements that critics have called “class war”. It’s a smokescreen. He wants to keep his position in the bank.


  1. I agree Ben. And no doubt the reference to me will get me a tax academic job!

  2. Sorry you're no longer in the position, John, but I hope you'll keep writing on tax matters (and get another job as a tax academic, perhaps?)


Type your comment here and choose an ID to "Comment as" - choose "name/URL" or "Anonymous" if you don't want to sign in.