Analysis

Swan's material defence against Palmer

"We can only sleep in one bed, we can only have one meal..."

– Clive Palmer

As ideas go, Canadian philosopher Barry Allen has a biggie -- and one that might help untangle the 'clash of the pygmies' that has erupted between Treasurer Wayne Swan and mining's greatest ratbag, Clive Palmer.

Allen's big idea is that what we know, and what we say to each other, is best understood by looking at 'things', not 'words'.

It's a strain of materialism -- that philosophical bent that helped Karl Marx's ideological progeny cut the 20th century world in two. Look at what people have, said Marx, not what people say they ought to have.

Similarly, Allen, in his book Knowledge and Civilization, says look at the 'artifacts' that surround people, or flow between them, to work out what's really going on.

Clive Palmer thinks his vision for Australia offers voters more 'things' -- if Labor loses power (and only the brave would bet against that prospect following today's Newspoll), the mining and carbon taxes will disappear in a puff of smoke, Clive can ship more coal and iron ore, wealth can trickle down through the economy, and people will see the high dollar as a blessing and buy more 'things'.

That's real knowledge, and it's the only real communication according to Allen -- the clever 'artifacts' we surround ourselves with are the real store of knowledge, not books on a library shelf. The flatscreen TVs that have marched like an army through every living room in the land are the distillation of decades of knowledge.

And the life-size replica of the Titanic that Palmer wants to build would be one of the biggest stores of knowledge yet -- all the skill and learning of the hundred years since the first one sank would be poured into Clive's new boat to keep it afloat.

But Wayne Swan, the 'intellectual pygmy' as Palmer dubbed him, is not as silly as he sometimes looks. While his leader suffers a full-scale News Ltd war of words -- they haven't yet run the headline "Labor's going to lose, nyah, nyah, nyee nyah-nyah!", but expect it any day -- Swan is pinning his hopes on the average voter's interaction with another clever artifact: the automatic teller machine.

Swan knows, as perhaps Palmer has forgotten, how important are the thin plastic artifacts that pour from the open metal mouths of these machines. The punters like dollar bills, and from July 1, voters earning up to $80,000 will get their hands on more of them, while wealthy punters -- many in safe Coalition seats -- will see fewer.

That material fact will, to echo Allen's ideas, mean a lot. Artifacts will fly in all directions and while lower-income Australians can only sleep in one bed and eat one meal, Swan's dramatic income redistribution will mean that the voters he needs to woo might end up sleeping in a nicer one, or guzzling a few more oysters.

And against that material fact stands the 'logos' -- ideas and words -- of would-be philosopher-king Palmer. The trickle down he proposes takes time to become the material reality of a gargantuan flat-screen or an iceberg-proof cruise liner.

Swan's cash splash, expected by Treasury to boost national productivity by reinvigorating the work ethic at the lower end of the social spectrum, starts in 61 days' time.

Palmer's tilt at Lilley is unlikely to happen, of course. Having met with a cool reception from the likes of Tony Abbott and Queensland premier Campbell Newman, Palmer would most likely have to run as an independent -- which in material terms means Clive pounding the pavements without a loving entourage of LNP staffers. I doubt that will be appealing enough for him to follow through.

That's not to say Swan won't be booted out of Lilley. Another LNP candidate will do that. And he'll deserve every bit of it -- regardless of what you think of Swan's policies, who wants a Treasurer who's silly enough to rise to Palmer's bait? Rather than call a press conference to attack the Palmerian logos, he should have sat tight, refused to utter Palmer's name again, and just waited for the artifacts to flow.

*This article was originally published by Business Spectator.


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