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Praise for Swan’s polished display

11 April 2011 1,514 views No Comment

WITH what seems to be his somewhat premature decision to prevent the merger of the Singapore and Australian stock exchanges, Treasurer Wayne Swan is once again in the media spotlight.

This concentrated attention can only increase when Swan who is Acting Prime Minister until Julia Gillard returns from leave tomorrow hands down the May 10 federal budget. One doesn’t have to have a crystal ball to predict that the 2011 budget will be one of the toughest in the last decade, as the Gillard Government fights to bring the books back into the black and protect its economic credentials.

When Swan delivers the budget he will finally answer the question as to whether he is up to the job of delivering the necessary fundamentals for Australia’s future.

He has had his fair share of critics over the years but the strong economic position in which Australia finds itself speaks volumes of his time as Treasurer. In reality he has a persistently strong performance that, by some counts, puts him ahead of other treasurers such as John Howard.

Swan’s performance has made him the backbone of the federal Labor Government’s firepower, being reliable, confident and having the strength to tackle the difficult issues such as the mining tax. A lesser treasurer would have walked away from that issue. With the carbon tax and the tax summit on the agenda this year, Prime Minister Gillard is going to need Swan to provide the stability necessary to keep driving the Government’s agenda. The latest Newspoll confirms that Swan’s performance as Treasurer makes him invaluable to Labor’s credibility and long-term re-election strategy. His steady performance is starkly in contrast to that of Gillard, whose current stance on climate change and the carbon tax has just been effectively undermined by previous Labor prime minister, now Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd. In a similar way, at least in recent months, Swan clearly outperforms shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, whose policy flip-flops have made him the weak link in the federal Coalition’s top troika, led by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop both of whom have been performing well.

It is indisputable that the fiscal stimulus strategy that Swan drove helped Australia through the global financial crisis. This not only stimulated the Australia economy exactly when it was needed, but also protected Australian jobs. Indeed the Australian economy continued to grow and is now facing its 21st year of economic growth, a fact that all treasurers over the past 21 years can take credit, including, but in particular, Swan.

Even Swan’s long-term Labor rival, former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, was so impressed with Swan performance as Treasurer, he recently praised him in the pages of The Australian much to the widespread surprise of their Labor colleagues.

An Australian federal government is difficult to manage at any time, but the current minority Government is almost impossible to handle, especially with the financial and other demands of the Greens and the Independents who are keen to trade votes in exchange for commitments, which have long-term fiscal and economic implications. Too often it is impossible for the Gillard Government not to trade with the Greens and Independents simply to get measures such as the flood levy through Parliament. This makes Swan’s job all the harder, as has the enormous damages bills for Australia’s floods, cyclones and fires, coupled with even more catastrophic disasters overseas.

Thankfully the Chinese economy has continued to consume Australia’s natural resources. This has guaranteed a reliable source of income, thus providing a foundation for the national economy and, unless there are absolutely unforseen contingencies, will continue to do so for years to come. This has enabled Swan to make long-term plans with some degree of certainty and give Australia the certainty it needs.

If Swan can return the Australian budget to surplus by 2012-13 as promised, he will further reinforce his sound reputation as Treasurer and may also put Labor in a tactically more solid position for re-election. It may be the Gillard Government’s best chance for another term.

Ross Fitzgerald is an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 33 books. His co-authored biography Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace will be published by Hale & Iremonger in May.

Canberra Times, April 11, 2011