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Small government not the answer – a response to Wayne Swan

By Tristan Ewins - posted Monday, 2 May 2011


In a recent Fabian Essay, 'Keynesians in the Recovery', Australian Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, has defended the Labor Federal government's legacy in preventing recession at home, and contributing to a global recovery in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. (GFC) It is a crucial narrative for Labor to contest: restoring a practical Keynesian orthodoxy in striving towards an implicit social-democratic consensus, and achieving generational change in perceptions of Labor on economic management.

Where would Australia have been had the Conservatives been in government with the onset of the Global Financial Crisis? (GFC) Most likely a Conservative government would have implemented deflationary policies which would have sent the economy into freefall, with an ever-escalating toll of human misery.

In 2008 the world teetered upon the precipice of a potential economic Depression. In his Fabian Essay Swan refects upon Australia's position at the time as follows:

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"It is too easy to forget just how exposed Australia was to the crisis. Eight out of ten of our major trading partners went into recession. Our banks faced dislocated global capital markets and calls from bank customers flowed into my office. The decline in production, investment and exports affected jobs, with unemployment rising by 175,000 within months. Our economy contracted by almost 1 per cent in the final three months of 2008." (p 5)

In the face of this looming catastrophe, Swan defends the government's response:

"Underpinning our policy response were the principles of fiscal and monetary action to boost aggregate demand set out by Keynes in his General Theory and his activist publications of the Great Depression era: immediate stimulus measures to boost consumer spending and confidence; useful public works to create employment; lower interest rates to boost investment and spending; and concerted international action to strengthen the world financial system." (p 5)

But there's another side to the story Swan is trying to sell on the economy. With the 2011-2012 Federal Budget about to be passed, it seems he's preparing us for austerity.

Swan writes of the importance of being "Keynesians in recovery" as well as in the downturn.

"With private demand strengthening, unemployment falling and our economy pushing towards capacity, we need to restrain public spending, and stay the course back to budget surpluses. Just as it was the right thing to step in and support demand during the GFC, the right thing to do is to take a step back as private activity recovers." (p 1)

[This means] "making room for the private sector when economic growth is strong." (p 1)

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And he takes the argument further:

"[The very] phrase 'counter- cyclical''….implies the opposite of the critics' claim that Keynesian policies constitute a recipe for ever-increasing rates of public spending as a proportion of GDP. (p 7)

"[While] governments have a responsibility to increase public spending going into a recession, once growth and prosperity have been restored, they have an equal responsibility to restrain public expenditure, budget for surpluses and reduce debt in climbing out." (p 7)

Finally Swan indicates his preference, now, to promote:

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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