Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I've never really liked Bruce Springsteen, I'm afraid, as this post probably makes clear.

I'm more a "Dead Kennedy's" man.

I love the lyric from 'Holiday in Cambodia', with it's suggestion of hypocrisy . . .


It’s taken four decades, but Wayne Swan has finally proved Gough Whitlam got it right.

In 1967 Labor had been out of power for eighteen years and Whitlam had just taken over as party leader. During all those years in the wilderness more than a few of the ‘true believers’ had gotten comfortable complaining and railing futilely against Bob Menzies’ apparently immovable Liberal government. Whitlam was desperate to make the party electable again, and he decided the policy platform had to be changed. Finally, during a fight with the Victorian branch he uttered an immortal warning: “certainly the impotent are pure”.

It didn’t take long before the wordsmith was polishing and repeating his phrase. By then the words had changed slightly. It became, “only the impotent are pure”. Whitlam was never happier than when quoting himself.

Nonetheless, the implied choice he laid before the party was both crucial and simple. Either continue tying the party to the tired rhetoric of failed ideology, no matter how inspiring it may once have appeared, or alternately transform, modernise and deal with the real concerns of everyday Australians. Things like making sure the outer suburbs of the big cities had flush toilets and sewage. Free university education. Integrating people into a successful modern economy.

It took another five years until, on the anniversary of Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz, Whitlam similarly triumphed over a ramshackle coalition. That weekend he formed a Cabinet with his deputy, Lance Barnard: there was so much to do. Conscription was abolished, China (Beijing) was recognised, action taken to achieve pay equity for women, a schools commission established – and more. Whitlam acted quickly to change the country. He would not be impotent.

Fast-forward to last week.

Swan’s acting Prime Minister in a government that’s been in power since 2007. There have been frustrations and limitations, so perhaps it’s understandable he feels a bit trapped. Yet last week we were treated to an extraordinary spectacle; a speech reverberating with a hollow echo – like a prisoner dragging a tin cup across the bars of his cell.

“Inequalities of wealth, opportunity and living standards [have been] allowed to mount unchecked”, Swan told the audience attending the John Button lecture in Melbourne. He pointed at his favourite targets, the mining billionaires, Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest. “We can't just accept a situation”, the Treasurer continued, “where a handful of people can stymie economic reform which aims to spread opportunities to others”. Good point. Well-done sir! So what’s the Treasurer’s plan to do something about this? How will he escape the impotence of the pure?
Oops, it seems that’s all a bit too hard to explain. Which is probably why, instead, Swan retreated to a panegyric of praise for the powerlessness he felt while at uni listening to ‘the Boss’, Bruce Springsteen. He says he used to turn the music up loud on the speakers as he partied hard through the night. His neighbours probably felt powerless, too.

Swan’s not dumb. He knows how to play the media like a fiddle. He understood the mere mention of Springsteen would send the febrile debate off down a dead-end, with pictures of him as a teenager at uni. So what was it all about, then? And more than that, what can possibly explain Swan’s continuing series of diatribes and tirades against his bogeys? He’s established his purity, but it won’t be too long before someone points out he’s beginning to appear just as impotent to change the ways of the world as he was back when he was a youth. Or the contrast between his own behaviour and his words.

Recently, Swan pocketed a pay-rise of more than $100,000. The Treasurer now earns more than $390,000. Now while that’s probably less than a successful young screen-trader in the finance industry, at least his pay-packet’s been getting heavier. Over the last decade lower and middle-income households have gone backwards, slithering down the pole. They now earn 0.5 percent less of the national income pie, while those in the upper-middle income group dropped 0.3 percent in their share of earnings. Inequality has become more entrenched since Swan became Treasurer.

Only one thing could possibly excuse that feeble, warbling response as he compares himself to Springsteen. Perhaps he actually is, finally, going to do something. As Treasurer he’s meant to know where the money is. As a former political apparatchik, he certainly knows that the votes are walking away from Labor and it will take something radical to win them back again. He’s been booted out of his seat of Lilley before (in 1996) and he’s facing imminent defeat again today. Labor’s attack on the Greens may have helped convince people not to park their votes there, but that just means more will plump directly for the Liberals. The mood of the electorate – demonstrated in poll after poll – is unforgiving.

But somehow, I don’t think so. That would require a degree of political courage that is, sadly, completely absent from Swan’s song list. If you want to understand why Labor’s so soft, just look at the Treasurer’s choice of Springsteen’s music. Saying you ‘like’ Springsteen is so utterly safe it’s like saying nothing at all.

Only one thing could possibly offer this government the slightest chance of re-election. A colossal, enormous bribe, targeted directly at the average voter’s hip pocket. Using tax cuts as part of a serious attempt at wealth redistribution. That would be option taken by someone who was fired-up in their youth by punk rock; actually using all that anger to achieve something positive.

But Swan wouldn’t dare challenge the status-quo. That’s all a bit too edgy. He’d prefer to lull his audience. Like the multi-millionaire Springsteen, he repeats the lyrics allowing him to pose as the champion of the working class while pocketing the money and watching the economy slide down the scrap-heap into despair. Too many jobs have been lost on Swan’s watch to allow him to get away with his latest musical rift. The Treasurer is nothing more than an impotent, aging man with a megaphone attempting, desperately, to find his virility again.

1 comment:

  1. Julie Gillard could sing "Don't let the Sun go down on me"