One last SWAN song

Last month Treasurer Wayne Swan launched an all-out attack on the mining industry, accusing its most high profile figures of leading a movement of "ruthless individualism and unquestioning materialism".

His three targets, Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer, and Andrew Forrest, were accused of selling out democracy, and using funds generated by the mining boom to distort political debate.

Swan said the mining boom had introduced an ugly new force to Australia, where a small group of magnates "use their considerable wealth to oppose good public policy and economic reforms designed to benefit the majority.

"The combination of industry deep pockets, conservative political support, biased editorial policy and shock-jock ranting has been mobilised in an attempt to protect vested interest," he said.

Although hardly mentioned in the tirade, what Swan was complaining about was the mining industry’s opposition to the mining tax and carbon tax. Since their inception both policies have drawn harsh criticism from the industry, but have regardless made their way into law.

In what Swan claimed as proof he was right, despite winning a majority vote both the carbon tax and mining tax are subject to High Court battles led by Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer.

 The problem

The crux of Swan’s lengthy critique concerned what he saw as an inherent contradiction in mining industry rhetoric. What the industry claimed as lobbying in the best interests of the Australian people, he saw as a self-interested argument focused on personal profit first and nationwide benefit last.

"What characterises the vested interests that I’m concerned about is how they misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest," he said.

Swan also blamed news media for contributing to the problem.

"Crucially, much of our media seems more and more inclined to accept that growing influence." 

Swan said the media was not only to blame for uncritical coverage of mining, but was also under risk of being bought-out by mining interests following Rinehart’s foray into Fairfax Media.

He pointed to comments  by Rinehart’s "friend and fellow media owner" John Singleton to prove his point.

Swan said Singleton had previously "let the cat out of the bag" when he spoke publicly on how the resources industry could attack governments because media figures like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones were ’employed by us’.

"This poison has infected our politics and is seeping into our economy," Swan said.

"Though these vested interests have not yet prevailed, every day their demands get louder."

 The answer

Unsurprisingly the mining industry, and in particular Forrest and Palmer, did not take kindly to the critique.

Of the three Palmer was most eager to refute Swan publicly.

"The Treasurer attacks me as being anti-democratic but he hardly knows me, or who I am," he wrote in an opinion piece following Swan’s essay.

"Other than a five-minute encounter at breakfast one morning, he has never met me."

Palmer also pointed to his own philanthropy, which he claimed had this year already reached levels "more than a hundred times the Treasurer’s salary".

Palmer questioned how much Swan had done, beyond criticism of the rich in the media, for Australians in need.

Compared to Palmer, Forrest kept a lower profile following Swan’s criticism, with Fortescue Metals Group instead coming to the magnate’s defence.

Immediately after the attack FMG took out full page advertisements in newspapers and accused the Treasurer of engaging in "class warfare".

FMG dismissed Swan’s condemnation as "irrational" and "unfounded", and said Forrest had built a company from nothing and donated generously, two qualities that epitomised the Australian ‘fair go’.

While Rinehart most likely shared the opinions of her peers the public was again left guessing over her reaction.

The richest, and arguably most powerful of the figures attacked in Swan’s essay, Rinehart kept the lowest profile, but will undoubtedly have her opinions aired as time goes on.

Ultimately the furore eventuated without surprises, and served only as a mild distraction to the debate over the carbon tax and mining tax.

But after the dust settled both parties refused to back down, and Swan left the magnates, politicians, media, and public with an ultimatum. The choice, according to the Treasurer, is between middle class Australia or the richest industry heavyweights.

Between "standing up for workers or kneeling down at the feet of the Gina Rineharts and the Clive Palmers," says Swan.

"It’s simply the best way to keep growing Australia’s economic pie so ultimately we all end up better off."

Whether Swan’s right or not only time will tell.

Like most battles with red-hot rhetoric the answer will most likely lie somewhere in between.