Wayne Swan: Out of Parliament, not out of politics

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Former Deputy PM Wayne Swan is still advocating for positive change in Australian politics (Screenshot via YouTube)

At a recent ALP function, former Deputy PM Wayne Swan gave a speech about overcoming our nation's conservative political agenda. Noely Neate was in attendance.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER Ben Chifley’s speech to the NSW Labor Party Conference in 1949, titled The Light On The Hill is now iconic in the Labour movement in Australia. Honoured annually by many with dinners and speeches by ALP luminaries – and aspiring leaders – who will speak to their aspirations for the party and where they see Labour as a movement in the future, just as the Labor legend himself did all those years ago.

It is always fascinating to hear the thoughts of the ALP leadership and, in light of their recent review into their election loss, it was even more interesting to see and hear Wayne Swan, former Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer of Australia, current National President of the ALP, give a speech, The Right Side of History, at the Ninderry (Sunshine Coast) branch of the ALP on Friday night (22 Nov 2019) at the Coolum Beach Hotel, no less.

Wayne is famously from Nambour on the Sunshine Coast and judging by members casual chatting and familiarity with him when he arrived, he has obviously not been a stranger to the area since he rose to prominence in the party. This casual easiness was also obvious in Wayne himself who didn’t refer to notes when speaking.

In fact, considering the content of his speech, this was no tub-thumping piece of oratory, but more a man talking with fellow like-minded, who remembered the bad old days and reminding them they had beaten an authoritarian and dictatorial government before – the famous Wayne Goss election ending the decades-long Bjelke-Petersen era back in 1989 – and they could do it again.

As someone who worked with Wayne Goss as a much younger man, Wayne Swan of all people is probably the aptest to be in a leadership role with ALP at this time in history. He is a man who is very aware of what inequality and authoritarianism look like, growing up in the Bjelke-Peterson era and like many in this nation – not just those in the ALP, mind you – recognises the “rise of the extreme Right and strong-men dictatorships”.

Some of the issues from that era may be different, we may be seeing it in our current Federal Government instead of the Queensland State Government – though, in light of recent protest laws introduced in Queensland, some may disagree – but the intent is the same.

I spoke personally with Mr Swan prior to the speech as he wandered the room chatting with those in attendance, commiserating with some about his late arrival due the bane of all who live here (the Bruce Highway, always worse in summer) catching up with old friends and introducing himself to newer members. I, of course, asked the question as to what his plans for his future were now he was no longer in government. He doesn’t know me from a bar of soap, yet the jovial manner dropped for a moment as he casually said, “I may be out of Parliament, I am not out of politics”.

His manner may have been relaxed but the look in his eye said he meant business. I can’t help but wonder where the ALP could be now if this man had risen higher than Deputy PM. Then again, with what the ALP is facing now, with both an increasingly authoritarian conservative Liberal National Party and “ruthlessly demonised by the ‘surround sound state media’ of the Murdoch press” – Wayne’s words – maybe he is exactly the person the Labor Party needs at this moment in history to lead them in the back rooms instead of wading through the day to day gritty “game of politics”.

His career has come full circle from those Wayne Goss days — he knows a dictator can be overthrown, the question will be can that experience be converted to today’s politics?

Personally, I found Mr Swan’s visible anger interesting when he referred to “characterisations of the Palaszczuk Government as a throw-back to the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen era are wildly inaccurate and damaging to the social democratic cause” in relation to recent legislation addressing protesters which many in the state – myself included – find astonishingly hard to reconcile with an ALP Government in Queensland.

I would note that even though Mr Swan went on to talk about the “enviable record” Labor had in Queensland on climate change and democratic rights, he didn’t address why those characterisations in regard to the recent anti-protest laws were “ridiculous”. Yes, they are damaging to the state ALP, but while I may not be an ALP member nor an actual supporter of the ALP as such – more a progressive bystander – I did get the feeling I was not the only person in the room who was still uncomfortable with that statement and waiting for him to justify how those laws could be defended when challenged by those disappointed or angered by them.

Conversely, this sentiment at the end of his speech resonated:

“I would suggest to Party members in particular that the lesson of this period, as we are increasingly surrounded by authoritarian Right-wing mini-Johs, is we can win the battle of ideas once again and be on the right side of history.”

It is telling that he delivered this speech about winning against the odds in a rusted-on LNP area like the Sunshine Coast, a region that has not seen an ALP MP since Ray Barber won Cooroora (now defunct) in 1989, a win Mr Swan, of course, reminded those in attendance of.

I got the impression this former member of Parliament won’t be someone who sees his role as the National President of the ALP as an honorary one requiring little input. He is obviously very aware of the hill the ALP has to climb, the fight it has on its hands and you get the impression that like back in the Goss era, this fight is about more than just the “game of politics” and “winning” government, but is about the future of equality and social democracy in this nation.

I may be a cynical old bird when it comes to political rhetoric, but I really did get the vibe that Wayne Swan was passionate about defeating the “dark conservative agenda” in his ‘Light on the Hill’ speech — he was not just rallying the troops.

I guess only time will tell if Mr Swan and his party can win that “battle of ideas”.

Disclaimer: I was invited to this dinner by Bill Gissane, President of the Ninderry branch of the ALP, someone I consider a personal friend and have respect for. Bill would have hoped I would write a piece for Independent Australia on the dinner, though there was no expectation of me to do so and, of course, as even Bill himself said on the night, “Noely gives both parties stick in Independent Australia” so he would never expect me to write to “order”, which I greatly appreciate. I am not a journalist, though felt in the interests of transparency it was appropriate to clarify why I was in attendance.

(Wayne Swan speaking at the Light on the Hill dinner. Image supplied)

Read more from Noely Neate on her blog YaThink?, or follow her on Twitter @YaThinkN.

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