Wayne Swan’s essay in The Monthly titled ‘The 0.01 Per Cent: The Rising Influence of Vested Interests in Australia’ has caused quite a stir in the last few weeks. Swan laments the rising influence of wealthy vested interests in Australia’s public policy debate, and warns of it undermining our equality and democracy. These are strong, politically-potent words from Australia’s Treasurer, and have brought interesting reactions from the opposition, the media, the mining industry magnates he attacked, and the general public.
The short-term political impact that Swan desired did not eventuate this week, as the latest Newspoll revealed a 4-point slide in the Gillard government’s primary vote in the past fortnight. Labor still trails the Coalition 53-47 in the two-part preferred vote, pointing to a comfortable Liberal-National victory in the next election. More importantly for Labor, Swan’s article did get the reaction his political advisors would have been hoping for – it trended No 1 on national Twitter feeds, was prominent on all radio talkback shows, and received hundreds of online responses, whether it be on Facebook or on personal blog posts, many agreeing with Swan’s arguments. The treasurer understands the value of a ‘fair go’ in Australian society, and he used that to his political advantage in the essay. As Sydney Morning Herald’s (SMH) Malcolm Maiden pointed out, Swan is “pitching to a very real sense of misgiving in the Australian electorate and the broader western world that capitalism no longer works for them no matter how hard they work themselves.”
Whilst reading Swan’s article, it almost felt like the carbon and mining resource rent taxes had been blocked by the parliament. In contrast, the carbon tax legislation has already passed through the parliament and will come into operation on 1st July this year. The mining tax has already passed through the House of Representatives, and will pass through the Senate provided the Greens maintain their support for the legislation. As Gerard Henderson argued in the SMH, “for Swan to be banging on about the likes of Forrest, Rinehart and Palmer is an indulgence – especially since this trio have not prevented the implementation of Gillard Labor’s policy agenda.” Indeed, this really illustrates that Swan’s essay is more about political point-scoring rather than genuine policy concern, as these vested interests have caused no real public policy gridlock in Parliament.
Moving to the core issue raised by the essay, I believe that modern politics clearly privileges the wealthy. This can be seen in the current US primary elections: it is the wealthy political ‘Super-Pacs’ rather than Republican base that is going to decide who faces President Obama in November’s general election. As Andy Borowitz tweeted this week; “America is a place where any kid who grows up and befriends an insane billionaire to buy ads for them can be President.”
Australia is no exception to this rule. A few billionaire Australians are able to use their wealth to influence public policy debate in Australia. They have the means, including access to politicians, interest groups, the media and the wider public through expensive advertising, to argue their political case, which usually aims to align their own personal self-interest with the ‘national interest’. The problem with Wayne Swan’s argument is that, as Treasurer of Australia, he is in a similarly privileged position. He can use tax-payers money to fund advertising campaigns to argue his government’s case, which they did during the public debate over the mining and carbon taxes. He has as much access to the media as any of the billionaires he mentioned in his article. Swan would argue that he is acting in the national interest given he represents the people that elected him, as opposed to these vested interests in the mining industry chasing personal profits. As we all know, Australian politicians such as Wayne Swan have their own version of personal profits; voting support from their electorate so they can remain in parliament past 2013.
Ultimately, as a democratic nation, we champion the value of free speech. Mining magnates and politicians alike can use this instilled value to their advantage. Most importantly, freedom of speech allows the general public to scrutinise the actions of these powerful vested interests, whether it be through the traditional media or new social media platforms. If we can continue to hold these vested interests accountable for their words and actions, their influence can be sufficiently contained.
Follow me on twitter @dean_pagonis
Read Wayne Swan’s article here: