Wayne Swan August 01, 2012
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan with a Bruce Springsteen poster in his office.
The sense of accountability to ordinary workers that lies at the heart of Bruce Spingsteen's music is what continues to inspire Labor.
MY INSPIRATION has always been music. Bruce Springsteen, ''The Boss'', was and remains my musical hero. And not just mine. He's the favourite musician of the Prime Minister and many other members of the government.
Like Springsteen, I and many caucus members came from working-class families. We are in many ways the Springsteen generation. And if our generation has an anthem, it is Born to Run.
It was released as a single in August 1975, and it's the song we listened to during the Whitlam dismissal in November of that year and the bitter election campaign that followed. The song has never left me. I still crank it up loud on budget night and after our family dinner parties. It's about trying to stay young when the carefree days of youth are coming to an end. It's a song about realising that big and daunting responsibilities are just around the corner. But it's also a song about a way of life that was just starting to disappear.
Springsteen never let the success of Born to Run go to his head or make him forget where he came from. He never stopped singing for the people he grew up with: the blue-collar workers of New Jersey and the midwest.
I want to quote what he said in 1977 looking back on that time: ''I had a reaction to my own good fortune. I asked myself new questions. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I'd grown up alongside of.''
For so many of us working for the Labor cause, it's this sense of accountability that has kept the flame burning.
It's the same sense of responsibility that the Prime Minister spoke of last week when recalling her decision to pursue a career in public life. It's exactly why she continues to compel and inspire us now, through the toughest terrain on the reform path - this sense of responsibility that burns more powerfully in her than in any person I've known in two decades of public life.
Part of this sense of accountability and responsibility is staying attuned to the constant evolution of our economy and our community.
As Springsteen put it, the sense of daily struggle in each of his songs kept growing. And he responded with an abiding question: when are ordinary people - the people who get up in the morning, work hard and look after their families - going to get a fair go? Nothing has fuelled my own public life more than this question.
Since my controversial essay was published in The Monthly in March, I've been asked often whether I now regret having criticised some of Australia's wealthiest and most outspoken mining tycoons. My answer is simple: no, I don't regret a word of it. In fact, my only regret is not going in hard enough, because every criticism I made has been played out almost to the letter on our national stage.
I argued that a handful of powerful people not only think they have the right to a disproportionate share of the nation's economic success, they think they have the right to manipulate our democracy and our national conversation to gain an even bigger slice of the pie.
Let me now make one further charge: there is an equally concerning view emerging that such vested interests should somehow be immune from criticism. They should not. They think the rest of us should fear them. We do not. I certainly do not.
The idea was promulgated that I had transgressed some new, unwritten law that limits the scope of our democratic debates in this country with this command: don't criticise the powerful, don't argue for equality.
My reply is this: egalitarian and democratic values are the values of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, and, in seeking to discredit those ideas, my critics are seeking to diminish the ideals on which our country is built.
The events of the past six months have strengthened my case even further. In that time, the three people I named in my original essay have made my case for me by the blatantly self-interested way they have campaigned against the minerals resource rent tax - a tax that asks them to do no more than pay a fair return to the Australian people for the right to mine and export the non-renewable resources that belong to the whole nation.
Clive Palmer came out in a blaze of self-promotion and expensive billboards announcing he would try to unseat me from the electorate of Lilley.
Andrew Forrest deployed his wealth to buy full-page ads in national newspapers to insist he was not deploying his wealth to have a disproportionate say in our nation's future. And now he's bankrolling a major High Court challenge to overthrow the minerals tax that the vast bulk of the mining sector has agreed to pay.
Gina Rinehart is baldly seeking the power to manipulate public opinion by buying Fairfax Media and explicitly refusing to sign the company's charter of editorial independence.
So one tycoon is using his money to challenge the principle of fair taxation through electioneering. A second is using his money to challenge it through the courts. And a third is using her money to challenge it by undermining independent journalism. Parliament, the constitution, independent journalism: three fundamental pillars of our democracy being used as their playthings.
In the face of all this, we have to stand up and be heard, because when the massively wealthy buy the loudest megaphones, the voices of the people are drowned out.
We are all wealth creators, and the inference that small business owners, union members, the low-paid, the poor, the old and the ill have no legitimate voice in our economic debates, and have no right to share in our national wealth, is one that I'll fight to my last breath. I'll keep up this fight because I believe that you can't treat the creation and the distribution of wealth as two separate matters.
My argument is simply that we should be creating economic opportunities for everyone. We can't just quietly accept a situation where a handful of people can stymie economic reform that aims to spread opportunities to others.
Indeed, the worst thing we can do as economic managers is create a society in which there are just a few at the top and teeming millions at the bottom, with hardly anyone in between.
So let me put this proposition to the critics: far from relying on class warfare, my argument is one whose central economic imperative is actually to avoid the class warfare that is fomented when inequalities of wealth, opportunity and living standards are allowed to mount unchecked. When you widen the wealth gap, you increase resentment and division. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen saw this trend coming long ago.
If I could distil the relevance of Springsteen's music to Australia, it would be this: don't let what has happened to the American economy happen here. Don't let Australia become a Down Under version of New Jersey, where the people and the communities whose skills are no longer in demand get thrown on the scrap heap of life. Don't let this be a place where ordinary people's views are drowned out and only those with the most expensive megaphones get a say. Don't let it be a place where Gina Rinehart can buy The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review with her pocket change and try to trample their fierce and proud independence unchallenged.
I completely understand that Springsteen is not everyone's cup of tea. I understand that we get our inspiration from sources of limitless variety. As we battle through some tough times, as we bed down some very tough but vital reforms for our country, we're going to need to draw deeply on these inspirations.
Wayne Swan is federal Treasurer. This is an edited version of the annual John Button lecture that he will deliver in Melbourne tonight. The full text is here.