Swan’s Australia Day message for generations gone by

Wayne Swan, channeling John Howard.
Wayne Swan, channeling John Howard.

Reading Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan’s Australia Day message was a disconcertingly embarrassing experience. It made me cringe to think Sawn is almost part of my peer group, and quite so chauvinistically stuck in a pre-war mindset that he thinks recalling the Bodyline discourse is of relevance or appeal to any contemporary Australian demographic.

For sane people everywhere, but particularly outside the cricket-playing Commonwealth, Bodyline was the style of attack used by English fast bowlers during the antipodean summer of 1932-33. That’s right: 80 years ago. The bodyline strategy was simple: bowl the cricket ball straight at the batsman with intent to injure or wrongfoot him. It was considered an unsportsmanlike reaction to the almost superhuman batting skills of Australians like Don Bradman, whose batting average was an astonishing 100 per game.

For Wayne Sawn to recall this event, however, as somehow defining of national character in 2013 is deeply troubling. It exposes him as representative of an anti-intellectualism that closes minds and bookshops in Australia, and appears to be more closely aligned with the Coalition than with anything recognisable as Labor tradition. It is also remarkably chauvinist in a kind of unreflecting way by glimpsing a future in a past in which working class people knew their place, Aborigines and ‘wogs’ were invisible, and women were chattel. It is not what you’d expect as the basis of a vision for the future. Not even from a technocrat beancounter like Swan.

My own adult maturation was set to the background of the Hawke-Keating Labor ascendancy. A time during which great ideological debates were still conducted behind the scenes, and pragmatic politics were based at least in part on a broader vision than winning just the next election.

During the twilight of that era, and throughout John Howard’s long tenure, I noticed the disappearance of intellectual debate behind closed doors, in public, in newspapers, and even in workplaces. There was a parallel development evident in bookstores, where literature, philosophy, history, politics and even the likes of Patricia Cornwell-style pot-boiler thriller writers were crowded out of available shelf space by ever more repetitious coffee table tomes about the ANZACS, and our sporting ‘personalities’. Was this an illustration that we had become complacent enough to regard only a jingoistic, chauvinistic part of our history as important at all to us, and to the intellectual development of our progeny? Whatever the case might be, many of those bookstores are now closed, or closing. People aren’t buying the expensive glossy shit about sport or the ANZACS any more than anything worthwhile reading.

Regardless of the changing economics of the trade in books, I always regarded the closure of bookstores as a legacy of Howard’s Coalition. A small-minded group of people who did not value knowledge or intellect, succeeding at the polls only because Howard and Costello were smart enough to maintain the Keating economic formula, and because Labor just couldn’t look past its factional pettiness to reinvigorate its leadership ranks.

John Howard, too, was a great fan of cricket and spared no verbiage on that subject in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, in which he made it pretty clear that he forever regretted not having gained his high school cricket team captaincy, for which his prime ministership was some sort of second-hand proxy. So, does Swan’s hankering for childhood sporting nonsense make him another aspirant to use the highest job in the land as an ersatz for boy scout fantasies?

That characterisation is in keeping with a man who writes blustering nonsense about English gentry making deals with bankers that plunged Australia into the great depression, as if he wasn’t busy making the same deals with a Wall Street orthodoxy, whose sole purpose is to widen the gap between the rich and the poor by demanding ever greater debt-driven profits, executive salaries and bonuses that are always paid for by tax debts for the already poor. As if he weren’t a principal in the shameful farce of Labor seniors turning to the dole bludger myth to justify cuts to welfare while awarding themselves and senior bureaucrats handsome pay rises.

This glib perfidy gives rise to an ironic juxtaposition. If Coalition leader Tony Abbott really were more of a Democratic Labor Party character, as proposed by former Labor speechwriter and historian, Bob Ellis, would Swan be more appropriately seen as a Victorian Liberal of the right? A kind of ugly duckling Andrew Peacock, with a born to rule mentality and a silver spoon in his Wedgewood tea cup. A vision not entirely dissonant with his native Sunshine Coast stomping ground, which now appears to be home to almost as many retired Victorians in beach front mansions as there are Queenslanders in the more modest residences. Tony Abbott as a Labor Prime Minister, with Swan as another failed Coalition leader? What a delicious idea for a comedy play.

But back to the cricketing metaphor.

Swan's vision for Australia: spot the women, 'wogs' and Aborigines ...
Swan’s vision for Australia: spot the women, ‘wogs’ and Aborigines …

Perhaps Swan’s most serious miscalculation in hearkening back to cricketing prowess eight decades in the past is to thus eliminate from his vision of what it means to be Australians almost all non-English-speaking migrants who have made their homes here since, to Indigenous Australians who were all but third class citizens, and certainly to all the women who have, fortunately, stepped out of the shadows they were consigned to in those depression era days.

It’s one thing for a Sunshine Coast silvertail to think himself well-read for having leafed through some literary anecdotes about the history of empire and cricket, but it’s quite another for the Australian Treasurer to be quite so cavalier about a vision for Australia that is based on a history of Bodyline, rather than, say, valid contemporary concerns, which have very little to do with cricket or the British Empire, and everything with the very ordinary performance of the Labor administration in which Swan is the economic principal and second most senior figure behind only the Prime Minister. And in which he is clearly an aspirant to the top job.

Swan’s play at the republic is almost incidental to his comment, and certainly a distant consideration to some of the harsher economic realities the country faces. More importantly, in terms of vision, Australia is at a generational crossroads, with neither the ALP nor the Coalition offering anything but inaction as the country slips, by default, into the disaster that has been America’s subservience to corrupt, self-destructive plutocracy, which delivers none of the trickledown benefits it promises, nor even an honest profitability that comes without destruction of its own economic fundamentals.

This lack of vision, and indolence in finding solutions for contemporary problems stands in stark contrast with a Labor legacy now being undone: the Hawke-Keating vision for an egalitarian Australia neither beholden to capitalism, but nor antagonistic to it, and definitely of a society in which the absence of wealth alone does not make anyone a second class citizen, the way Swan, Senator Macklin, and others clearly see low income or unemployed Australians.

It seem ironically telling that Swan’s mindset appears to be reflected in outsourcing the business of having a vision for Australia to a spin doctor and an academic bureaucrat, whom he calls ‘esteemed historians’, presumably on the sole basis of writing about … cricket. One has to wonder where his economic policy comes from.

Perhaps Swan would have done better to get himself some professional policy and media advisers to devise for him a more convincing fable, and to bully him to set aside his own ignorant technocrat prejudices long enough to sound remotely like the statesman he’s not.


Swan, Wayne (2013). ‘Bodyline’s final legacy may be an Australian republic’. Brisbane Times, 25 January, http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/politics/bodylines-final-legacy-may-be-an-australian-republic-20130124-2d9nr.html, accessed 27 January 2013.

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