An unusual team; but Swan, Springsteen win gold
With the Olympics dominating the media, most Ministers and MPs opted to take things quietly this last week. They assumed that a public consumed by sport would simply ignore anything to do with politics.
Julia Gillard went on holiday. Tony Abbott was uncharacteristically subdued. Both sides took the view that discussing issues of policy while our athletes were competing in London would be a waste of time and energy.
Only the Treasurer - boring, unadventurous Wayne Swan - defied conventional wisdom. And, remarkably, it paid off. He made the kind of splash some of our swimmers would have envied.
You don’t have to agree with what Swan said to appreciate the achievement. He got us talking about a political speech when all we were supposed to care about was gold, silver and bronze medals.
Swan’s speech broke through wall-to-wall Olympics coverage in the mainstream media, and - in the words of a surprised government spinner - “took off like a rocket in the social media”. It trended on Twitter for the best part of a day.
All this from a bloke frequently criticised for lacking communications skills.
Swan tried something different -using Bruce Springsteen’s songs to explain his approach to economics - and it worked. It got our attention.
Opposition politicians and some snobby journalists looked down their noses and suggested this was no way to deal with serious matters.
But anything that makes economic discussion less eye-glazing and more accessible, less about dry statistics and more about people, can only be healthy.
The normally buttoned-down Treasurer showed more of himself in this speech than he has done before. He spoke about his values and what inspired them.
Increasingly the Gillard government needs to answer the question: “What do you stand for?” Swan’s speech was a start.
Not that it will make much difference in the overall scheme of things. Federal Labor’s fate is sealed no matter who leads it into the next election.
But the party’s key task is to avoid a disastrous wipe-out by winning back traditional Labor voters who have become disillusioned and defected to the Liberals in the last two years.
That is what Swan was about. The message he delivered with the help of Springsteen was as old as the ALP itself.
Labor’s job, he said, was to avoid the social dislocation and unrest that can result from growing inequality of wealth and opportunity.
His aim was continuing wealth creation in the Australian economy to produce, not the large-scale inequality of the America Springsteen sings about, but social mobility and a broadening middle class.
Like Springsteen, Swan said, Labor believed that “to build a better society we have to ensure the fruits of economic growth reach everyone”.
There was nothing very complicated about it. Nothing very controversial, either. Simply Labor getting back to where its traditional supporters have wanted it to be.
And Swan using a discussion of Springsteen’s music as a device - “a clever device”, in the words of a former Liberal official - to get people to listen.
It is also part of the development, far too late, of a Labor narrative - a story to explain to voters what the Government is on about.
Swan’s Springsteen speech ties in with two ambitious reform programs - the National Disability Insurance Scheme and proposed changes to the school funding system - that the Gillard Government will hang its hat on between now and the election.
Both fit the theme of spreading opportunity around.
Gillard emerged from a recent meeting of state and federal leaders looking good after she forced the NSW and Victorian Liberal Premiers to back down from their refusal to share in funding trial NDIS programs.
The PM wanted a fight on the issue, knowing public opinion was on her side, and was alarmed on the eve of the Canberra meeting when there were rumours that the conservative states might go along quietly with what she wanted.
The federal coalition also says it supports the NDIS, but a key Gillard minister claims: “They’re half-hearted about it.We’re not. This is a reform as Labor as Medicare.”
The coalition makes no bones about its attitude to the school funding overhaul recommended by a panel headed by businessman David Gonski. It is openly hostile, promising to repeal any legislation passed before the next election.
But even the conservative governments in NSW and Queensland agree that the existing system, which expires next year, needs to be fixed. This is another argument Labor should be able to win.
Again Swan’s Springsteen speech will underpin the case for removing entrenched disadvantage.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
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