Fair go for all, not just for a fortunate few
It's often the case that great artists - people like Bruce Springsteen - tend to pick up the subterranean rumblings of profound social change long before the economic statisticians notice them. Changes start long before they become statistics.
If you listen to the albums that came out after Born to Run - albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the USA and Nebraska - you can hear Springsteen singing about the shifting foundations of the US economy which the economists took much longer to detect, and which of course everyone is talking about now.
Springsteen saw that for ordinary people life wasn't getting any better; other people were grabbing all of the gains. As he 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.
For instance, the song The River was based directly on the collapse of the New Jersey construction industry in the late 70s and the disastrous effect it had on his sister who was married to a building worker. From the track Atlantic City on the Nebraska album:
Now I've been looking for a job, but it's hard to findOr from My Hometown on the Born in the USA album:
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line…
Now main street's whitewashed windows and vacant storesAnd how about this, from the song Badlands on the Darkness on the Edge of Town album:
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back to
Poor man wanna be richWhen I listened again to that song recently it struck me that Springsteen could have been talking expressly about a few people that I've written about lately. 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.
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
Till he rules everything.
My answer is simple: no, I don't regret a word of it. Not for a second. 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.
You will recall my original charge: that the rising influence of vested interests is threatening Australia's egalitarian social contract. 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.
In the wake of the debate my essay unleashed, let me 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.
Simply for arguing that every citizen has an equal right to be heard; that we need a diversity of opinions in our media; that taxation should be progressive; and that the mineral wealth that lies beneath our soil belongs to all of us, I was accused of preaching class warfare, and called unfit to be Treasurer of this country.
I was told that I was siding with the wealth consumers not the wealth creators; that I wanted to slice the pie not grow it; and that my day job was simply to shut up and to make the wealthiest Australians wealthier still. In short, the idea was promulgated that I had transgressed some new, unwritten Australian 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: the egalitarian and democratic values I put in my essay in The Monthly 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 last 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 which 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 which belong to the whole nation.
Take Clive Palmer. He came out in a blaze of self-promotion and expensive billboards announcing he would try to unseat me from the electorate of Lilley. (Ironically, his political campaign bore exactly the same slogan as his mining company bears.) It was a naked threat to use his massive wealth to overturn the Government's tax policies. Of course, he has since skulked away from that fight in an epic display of political cowardice, but has also promised he'll be seeking LNP pre-selection in a different seat, so his efforts to use his immense wealth to buy influence through the LNP and force his way into the Parliament continue apace.
Or take Andrew Forrest. Within days of my Monthly article he 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 Resource Rent Tax that the vast bulk of the mining sector has itself agreed to pay.
Or take Gina Rinehart. She 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. As veteran economic journalist Ross Gittins - who has got stuck into me plenty of times over the years - observed: "I'm not particularly keen on the idea of anybody telling me what I'm allowed to say about the mining industry."
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: all three are fundamental pillars of our democracy, being used as their playthings, supported every step of the way by the Leader of the Opposition.
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. Amid the debate that followed my essay, one idea that seemed to emerge implicitly among some of my critics was that wealth is created only by certain groups in our society, occupying certain places in our economy. By contrast, the truth at the core of our labour movement is that the wealth of our country is created by every Australian. You can create wealth by owning a business, but you can also create wealth by working for a business. You can create wealth by working on the top floor of an office tower, but you also create wealth working down a mine, in a factory, in a shop, in a hospital, in a music studio, a kindergarten, a school, a TAFE college and a university. 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 with deep conviction that you can't treat the creation and the distribution of wealth as two separate matters. From the very start of my political career, I've believed deeply and espoused widely the central economic philosophy of growing wealth to spread opportunity. Along with the 800,000 jobs created under this Labor Government, nothing makes me prouder than going to a factory floor or a 40th floor boardroom and saying we've grown our economy by almost 10 per cent since the carnage of the GFC while many other advanced economies still haven't even got back to the starting line. That's something sadly but quite deliberately overlooked by some of my critics in their haste to play the deeply simplistic 'class-warfare' card.
Now, there are some who accuse me of disparaging individual achievement and disparaging billionaires; either they haven't actually read the essay or are deliberately misrepresenting it. As I wrote at great length in the Monthly - the overwhelming majority of Australian entrepreneurs and businesspeople are to be absolutely commended for the risks they take and the wealth they create for our country. 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 which 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. That type of society is an economic disaster waiting to happen, because where vast inequalities exist, fewer people are able to gain the skills, knowledge and encouragement they need to succeed. There is less achievement, less wealth creation, and less prosperity for everyone to enjoy. Rather than risking a stagnant and widely divided society, we should be - and are - building a society with a vast middle class and a high degree of social mobility. That's the meaning of economic equality in the 21st Century and it's the central and abiding purpose of the Labor cause today.
Obviously, you have to make a pie before you can slice it - and I'm deeply proud that we've grown our national pie by nearly 10 per cent since the GFC - but eventually you do have to slice it. The choices you make in slicing the pie reflect fundamental moral judgements. They also reflect important economic judgements, because, economically divided societies tend to be societies without common purpose, without cohesion, without cooperation, and eventually without economic growth.
America's leading economists now bear this out. From at least the early 1980s onwards, working class Americans have been losing their share of American prosperity while the wealthy have been gaining dramatically more. So much so that leading economists and sociologists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Putnam now observe that wealth inequality, not race, is the most divisive factor in US society.
One leading Australian observer of big-picture socio-economic change Paul Kelly has recently made a similar point, writing that:
The backdrop to the 2012 Obama-Romney presidential campaign is a historic fall in the incomes and wealth of America's middle class that creates a profound test for economic and social policy, fuels anger and alienation within the country and plays into the bigger fear of US decline.In Australia, I'm immensely proud to report that the picture is a much healthier one. While median household wealth in the US declined by more than 30 per cent between 2004 and 2010, here in Australia it has increased by more than 20 per cent over the same period. Of course this isn't to say that the global recession and its aftermath have not had any impact here in Australia. But the great achievement of Australia is that continuing wealth creation has not meant large-scale inequality. Quite the contrary, it has been accompanied by a broadening middle-class and a degree of social mobility which is central to the optimism and social cohesion that sets our country apart.
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 of the sort that people like Paul Kelly now see playing such a decisive role in US politics. But, as I have said, artists like Bruce Springsteen saw this trend coming long ago.
It's the message - or more precisely, the warning - that has underscored his music for the last 35 years, and it dominates his latest album and his best for many years, Wrecking Ball. This message is that to build a better society we have to ensure the fruits of economic growth reach everyone. And the warning is that if we don't include everyone and don't listen to everyone, the social discord which could follow will put our growth and prosperity at risk. This is what Springsteen is speaking out against. "Whenever this flag is flown," he sings on Wrecking Ball, "we take care of our own."
We take care of our own. It's a powerful message which has enormous relevance here in Australia. It's the same egalitarian version of patriotism that gets us out of bed in the labour movement, that cuts us to the quick and stirs us into action when we see attempts to diminish it in the name of unashamed self-interest.
So if I could distil the relevance of Bruce 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 its fierce and proud independence unchallenged.
Don't let it be a place where one man's strident anti-reformism for the benefit of powerful vested interests is rewarded with the highest office in this land. Just as George W. Bush pushed through massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans during his presidency, so too does a key element of Tony Abbott's platform lie in delivering massive tax cuts for our richest, at the expense of our community's poorest.
He says yes to lower taxes for mining billionaires and massive mining companies, and no to everything else. No to tax relief for small business. No to a bit of extra help paying the bills for low and middle income families, no to a more dignified retirement for Australian workers. The gross economic inequality of this position is the kind of injustice that corrodes Australia's precious social contract and is exactly the kind of peril that Springsteen is warning against. But he's not the only one.
Springsteen's form of politically-committed music has notable Australian examples too. As I mentioned earlier, I've been a huge fan of Cold Chisel since the 1970s. My first concert with my wife was a Chisels concert in Canberra where they played tracks from their East album.
How about this from the song Standing on the Outside:
Standing on the outside lookin' inIt's a story about unequal chances and the damage that can do. Think also about those great songs written by Don Walker, like Khe Sanh and Flame Trees - which are as moving and evocative as anything written by Springsteen, perhaps even more so. And my kids tell me the political tradition lives on in Aussie hip hop bands like the Hilltop Hoods, among others.
Room full of money and the born to win
No amount of work's gonna get me through the door
They should be a reminder to us that the contest of ideas isn't one that is played out solely in the chambers of the parliament at 2pm or in the pages of a handful of newspapers. It's played out with deep passion and immediacy in our culture, in our ways of living and communicating with one another. When we seek out the source of our motivations, we should look far afield: from great literature, from film, from speeches and from music. We should look to our history, to the stories of our grandparents, of our parents, of the communities we grew up in, of our party and its history, of the lives of our heroes like John Button. We don't do this enough.
When events like the Global Financial Crisis loom, our response isn't just informed by our economic judgments, important though that they are, but also by the values that have been transmitted to us by over a century of struggle for the Labor cause. Labor people know that even when times are tough, we still have choices. Our values will guide those choices. This explains why our first reaction to the carnage of the GFC was to ensure that ordinary people's living standards weren't destroyed through recession and unemployment.
We don't acknowledge often enough this truth about the importance of our political culture in shaping these values. We don't talk nearly enough about our party's broad traditions and political culture - certainly not in ways that are appealing to young people who tend not to watch Insiders and Lateline but who do watch Rage and The Voice, and who do have strong political views which they share through social media, along with their favourite literature, art, music and theatre.
We should talk about our party's history, its literature and its music, because doing so is essential to transmitting our egalitarian beliefs to new generations of activists. They are beliefs that have deep roots in mainstream Australian culture. They are also universal concepts that we share with all cultures. Concepts like equality, justice, patriotism, not leaving people behind but advancing as a community. Concepts we can hear in the strains of great musicians like The Boss.
Of course I completely understand that Springsteen's not everyone's cup of tea. I understand that we get our inspiration from sources of limitless variety. We get inspired by the stories of our past and the music and poetry of our own time, from the tireless battlers of the shopfloor to the fierce political warriors of the parliament like John Button or Mick Young or Julia Gillard.
As we battle through some tough times at the moment, as we bed down some very tough but vital reforms for our country, we're going to need to draw deeply on these inspirations. But I know, as you know, that if we do this, if we put our purpose and our passion to the fore, then we can prevail and we can win an even more inclusive and decent future for the people our movement represents.
It is with this in mind that I've called this evening's lecture Land of Hope and Dreams. Because that's what I think this country is. A land of hope and dreams, but they must be hopes and dreams for everyone, not just for a fortunate few.
Wayne Swan is the Federal Member for Lilley, Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer.