Born in: Nambour, Queensland
Home Town: Brisbane
Wayne Swan runs the Treasury, shapes the budget and guides the good ship Australia through the stormy waters of financial and economic crises. So it's no surprise that he's our most powerful Money Mover.
But he doesn't really deserve to be.
Until this week, when he won Euromoney's World's Greatest Treasurer Award, we were struggling to find anyone to praise his performance. We googled the phrase "Wayne Swan is doing a good job as Treasurer" and got no results. We chopped off the words "as Treasurer" and the count climbed to eight, but five of those were prefaced by the word "not", and another came from Gerard Henderson.
Nor did the tally improve when we canvassed the views of economists, former treasurers and even Swan's mates.
One former Labor colleague told The Power Index "he's hopeless".
Mark Latham, the man who put him in the job, by making him shadow treasurer in 2004, was similarly scathing, branding him "insipid", "unfamiliar with basic economic terminology", and beset by "nerves and anxiety".
Cheryl Kernot, who comes from Queensland and knows Swan well, told The Power Index, "People in Canberra don't think he's good, even on the Right. There's lots of mutterings behind the scenes. And he's been appallingly weak in supporting Julia Gillard on the mining and carbon taxes."
Finally, a former treasurer lamented, "The Treasurer's words are gold, much more important to the markets than those of the Prime Minister. But I don't think anyone has told Swanny that. He's gone into treasury as if he's still on the campaign trail."
So is he as bad as his critics say, or is he as good as his gong? Answer, he's competent at best. He has no formal economic training, few skills as a salesman, no reforming zeal and almost zero star quality: he's a natural understudy to leading actors such as (Paul) Keating and (Peter) Costello.
Indeed, Swan might be better suited to running a suburban bank branch or doing the accounts at a local RSL than running the country. So how on earth did he get the job, given that he lacks the necessary qualifications?
The immediate answer is that he managed Kim Beazley's unsuccessful tilt at the Labor leadership in 2004. And this — instead of consigning him to life on the backbenches — made him front runner for the shadow treasurer's job. Latham wanted to appoint Julia Gillard, but was warned against having a left-winger, and needed to keep the party sweet. So Swan got the job instead. But he still beat Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and Lindsay Tanner across the line. So how did he manage that?
Beazley's support is one possible explanation. Bill Ludwig and the Australian Workers Union is another. As Gillard pointed out in a fawning speech to the AWU conference last February, the Treasurer is "a long-time friend" of the union and its 77-year-old boss. Swan joined the union almost 30 years ago as a Labor staffer and rode its coat tails to power in Queensland. He ran election campaigns for Premier Wayne Goss in 1989 and 1992, and was appointed ALP state secretary in 1991 (with AWU support). From there, he moved into federal parliament for the Brisbane seat of Lilley in 1993.
Insiders say the one-time university lecturer has always fancied himself as a mover and shaker. Cheryl Kernot remembers him being on Beazley's elite strategy committee about 2000, even when he was a lowly shadow minister. And a former Beazley staffer recalls him and Stephen Smith being "always in the office, talking to Kim, wasting everybody's time".
"He was always friendly and likeable," the staffer recalls, "I just don't think he added very much."
Back then, Smith and Swan were known as the Glimmer Twins and almost inseparable. They would meet in the café at Parliament House every morning, then slip down to the basement and back through the front door for a date with the waiting TV cameras, their lines all prepared.
This experience on the boards should have equipped him for the bright lights of the treasurer's job, where the most important task is to champion the government's economic policy and convince the markets that everything is under control. But Swan lacks the bravado and showmanship of his predecessors. He's more John Kerin (remember him?) than Paul Keating.
Heckled and hissed at in question time on his first few outings as Treasurer in early 2008, Swan rarely looks comfortable or confident even now. You would never guess he won the economics prize at school and a scholarship to university, let alone the prize of world's best finance minister.
"His body language is too cramped. His delivery is too rapid. In some respects, he is trying too hard," Latham wrote in an early review.
In the words of former Treasury adviser Brendan Brown, "He is to economic policy what Nathan Hauritz is to spin bowling: honest and hard-working but with limited ability." Luckily for Swan, an equally pedestrian bowler, Joe Hockey, has been spinning for the other side.
Swan's saving grace, according to one ex-Labor staffer is that, "He's not stupid enough to think he can run Treasury. He does what he's told, which means he doesn't do anything radical, but he doesn't get too much wrong."
Certainly, there are enough smart brains in the Treasury to run the place without a politician's help. And he's got Glenn Stevens at the Reserve Bank to handle monetary policy as well. But the world's best treasurers — as Keating and Costello — see themselves, used their time in the job to reform the economy, and Swan has baulked at that. The government's feeble response to Ken Henry's wide-ranging tax review is just one example of his (and his government's) lack of vision. The $6.5 billion support package for the car industry (which is surely pouring good money after bad) is another. The lack of a sovereign wealth fund a third.
The Power Index does give him and Kevin Rudd top marks for their prompt response to the GFC, even if others quibble about the size of the stimulus and waste in the school-building program. But we're not clear whether Swan was really the driving force in taking such quick and decisive action.
And as for the mining tax, it has been a total shemozzle. Rushed into being, then hurriedly recast, it could and should have been handled so much better.
The same applies to the carbon tax or ETS in its various forms, only more so.
It's little wonder then that Swan gets such a poor report card. But he's a nice enough man and one of those rare politicians — from a journalist's standpoint — who listens to your question and actually bothers to answer it.
Perhaps that's his country upbringing. Born in Nambour, a sugar town not far north of Brisbane, he went to state schools there and spent summers surfing on the Sunshine Coast. He and Kevin Rudd went to Nambour High together, two years apart, and Wayne was cool, says Kevin, who was not. Only one surprise there. Rudd captained the debating team, Swan the rugby team, although he's not a big bloke.
The two men didn't know each back then and have never been close, despite swimming in the same small pool of Queensland Labor politics (they come from different factions). And they're even less chummy now, since Swan backed Gillard in the June 2010 coup. So don't expect Swan to remain Treasurer if miracles happen and Rudd gets back.
Don't expect him to do anything bold or dramatic, either, if he stays in the top job for another two years.
As one colleague from the 1980s recalls, "He was a nice enough guy but a lightweight. He was certainly no Einstein." It could well be his epitaph.