Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

An insider's take on Australia's federal treasurers

Not all federal treasurers are created equal, as seasoned economics journalist Ross Gittins explains

In brief

  • Since the Whitlam government 40 years ago, journalist Gittins has been following federal treasurers
  • I let my liking for the man stop me from writing what I thought: that he was too weak to be treasurer
  • He wasn’t brave enough on the reform front nor tough enough in controlling government spending and he couldn’t sell ice-creams on a hot day at the beach

By Ross Gittins

In 40 years I’ve been around for 13 federal treasurers. The Whitlam government’s Frank Crean was my first. I was too junior to get to know him, which was a pity. I liked him because he reminded me of my father.

I had little to do with Dr Jim Cairns and didn’t get to know Bill Hayden until he was in opposition. Once, in a phone interview, he asked if he was speaking too fast for me. It’s OK, I said, I’m taping it. This was common practice in the gallery, but illegal if done without permission. Hayden was most upset and said he’d make a complaint to the editor. I sent him an abject apology, also arguing that if I was a bad person I would have been too devious to blurt out what I was doing. To my great relief he let it slide.

About that time I had a phone interview with a Country Party shadow minister about super. It went for a while, but didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Only after I’d hung up did I realise I’d been asking about superannuation while he’d been answering about the superphosphate bounty.

After the Fraser government arrived I didn’t get to know Rubbery Phil Lynch, but John Howard was a different matter. Later I even accepted an invitation to attend the party at his home in Wollstonecraft celebrating his first election as opposition leader. I’ve never seen so many Bermuda jackets in one room. I later wrote that I’d parked my dirty Datsun around the corner, something that stuck in his mind, as did my jibe that he represented the interests of “the typical Wollstonecraft family”.

Keating was an assiduous worker of gallery journalists, who learnt much of his economics from Max Walsh until Treasury took over. So, though I was in Sydney, I got to know him and his staff well. I was seen as too partial to him and his policies, but that was because I invariably agreed with them — rationalism with a human face. To this day I’m unembarrassed that, when I sent him a copy of my first book, I inscribed it “to God’s gift to the economy”. Particularly as prime minister he became notorious for phoning journos to abuse them over something they’d written. For many it was a badge of honour. With me, however, his reproof was always more in sorrow than in anger. Our greatest treasurer, with daylight second.

When Keating decamped to the backbench after failing to topple Bob Hawke at his first attempt, his successor, John Kerin, did a more-Keating-than-Keating impression. His one most unKeating-like act was to demonstrate that the budget could be delivered satisfactorily without any need for a lockup. His subsequent fate, however, made it a unique occurrence — or lack of occurrence. With a degree in agricultural economics, Kerin was far better qualified than most treasurers, so I thought it terribly unjust when the TV news bulletins hounded him from office by repeatedly playing a clip of him forgetting that GOS stood for gross operating surplus. None of his righteous accusers would have known that. As for that gallery smartarse question — what’s the dollar figure for GDP? — many highly competent economists wouldn’t carry the figure in their head — as I don’t — because it’s trivia.

Costello’s greatest achievements were his carriage of the goods and services tax and his reform of the prudential supervision of the financial system, which kept our banks out of trouble in the GFC.

Free advice and dirty jokes

John Dawkins was competent but tetchy. Ralph (pronounced the Victorian way to rhyme with Elf) Willis was well qualified academically, but terribly reserved. Once when his staff had a story they wanted him to give me they arranged that I would fly to Melbourne, follow him around most of the day, then fly to Canberra with him on a VIP jet so he’d have time to talk to me. We talked all right, but he wouldn’t cough up the story. He was too decent and too competent to deserve to end his career in the ignominy of using a document in the 1996 election campaign that proved to be fake.

Peter Costello had two counts against me: I was from Sydney and, like virtually all journos, I was biased against him politically. It’s true I criticised him on more issues than I supported him. But though I backed him vigorously on some unpopular measures, it would never have crossed his mind that my criticism arose from our differing values, not from partisanship. Early in his term someone on his staff suggested I fly to Canberra and have dinner with him so we could get to know each other. It wasn’t a success. Unlike most politicians he didn’t have the wit to nod noncommittally while I gave him free advice, just kept telling me dirty jokes.

He cured me of having a lot to do with the treasurer’s office, helping me realise something that would never have occurred to him: since there’s no shortage of expert economic advice, he needed me more than I needed him. Once, his press sec decided to give me the treatment regularly dished out to gallery reporters who’d incurred his displeasure by inviting all economic journalists to some function except me. I couldn’t believe he could be so incompetent. Gallery reporters had no choice but to cop such treatment in silence, but as a columnist in Sydney I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making it public. Normally I resist the temptation to go for cheap cheers, but this time I opted for a little self-publicity.

I kept it up for two weeks until the call came through from Costello. “I’m sorry to shock you, Ross, but I didn’t actually read the column you say I took offence at.” Etcetera. It was as close to a conciliatory call as Costello could get, so I too was conciliatory. People kept telling me Costello was bright but lazy, but a treasurer who didn’t read my columns? I believed him. What it proved was something I suspect happens a lot: his press sec had taken offence on his behalf. It was probably the press sec who’d finally decided to ask the boss to call off the Gittins dog.

Costello’s greatest achievements were his carriage of the goods and services tax and his reform of the prudential supervision of the financial system, which kept our banks out of trouble in the GFC. I hope I’m big enough to acknowledge these and other achievements, but the notion that he’s up there with Keating as a reformer is partisan propaganda.

Swan song

Wayne Swan fell well short of either of them. In opposition he put a lot of effort into getting to know me and I grew to like him. A couple of times as treasurer he gave me heads-ups before big announcements which helped me work out my position. But the truth is I feel a bit guilty about Swan. I let my liking for the man stop me from writing what I thought: that he was too weak to be treasurer. He wasn’t brave enough on the reform front nor tough enough in controlling government spending and he couldn’t sell ice-creams on a hot day at the beach. He was particularly poor on the mining tax, though it’s true Treasury let him down with some serious revenue and political miscalculations. He wasn’t tough enough with Treasury, either.

When he was succeeded by Chris Bowen my first thought was regret that I’d neglected to take up opportunities to get to know Bowen better. But thinking about my problem with Swan I decided I was better off not getting to like these guys and so being freer to judge them on their merits. I know Joe Hockey well enough to know he’s a likable guy – and to expect him to see more easily than Costello that, with me, he’ll win some and lose some – so that’s close enough.

This is an edited extract from Ross Gittins’ A life among budgets, bulldust and bastardry published by Allen & Unwin. RRP A$32.99 NZ$39.99

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

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