FRAN KELLY: A significant figure from the Rudd-Gillard Government is taking his leave. Wayne Swan will retire at the coming election after a quarter of a century in Federal Parliament. The former Treasurer who steered the country through the Global Financial Crisis has used his parting speech in the Parliament to lacerate the resurgence in Australia of an American style form of, quote, ‘race-based dog-whistle politics’. And with Labor’s tax reform policies under heavy fire from the Government, Wayne Swan is urging his Party to vigorously defend their economic credentials heading into the election. Wayne Swan joins us in Parliament House. Wayne Swan welcome back to Breakfast.

WAYNE SWAN: Good Morning Fran.

KELLY: 1,422 sitting days in Parliament, and you’ve still got a few more to go. That’s a fair-whack –

SWAN: Almost four years Fran, continuously.

KELLY: I guess you’ve changed a lot over those years, but what about the Parliament? How different is the Parliament and the politics today, since the first day you arrived as the Member for Lilley in 1993?

SWAN: You know it’s much more partisan, I guess. Even though most of the Bills that tend to go through the Parliament are agreed on, the partisanship and the disagreements over key questions are much more fierce now than they’ve probably ever been. I think particularly on the conservative side of politics it’s been taken over by what I would call a US style Republican virus, and there’s been a marked move to the Right on the other side of the Parliament. The Labor Party is pretty much, in policy and ideological terms, where it’s been for most of its history, but this change on the conservative side of politics is quite marked -

KELLY: It’s not just a change on that side of politics though is it Wayne Swan? It’s also, if you think about it, the primary support for both major parties is really diminished and there’s been a splintering. What do you put that down to? A failure of major parties to understand the electorate, or something else? A lot of people talk about the impact of the 24 hour news cycle, the social media impact, ‘fake new’ or the borganisation of where people get their news.

SWAN: Well all of the above Fran. There’s been dramatic changes in technology and I made the point yesterday that three years of the Parliament back in the early 90’s would just squeeze into one  year now so, the pace of political life, the pace of life in general because of changes in communication and so on has dramatically increased the pressure of the job. Particularly if you are in Parliament and you are a Shadow Minister or a Minister - the pace can be brutal. So I think there’s been a fundamental change in pace, but in terms of society, it has changed dramatically. People no longer vote almost exclusively in the way in which their parents did, so the electorate is much more contestable. And yes, support for the major parties has fractured somewhat, no doubt about that and the trend towards independence is there, but we’ve also seen the emergence as we’ve become a much more wealthy country of plutocrats with large amounts of money seeking to use that to influence political outcomes. I mean you could get no better demonstration of that at the moment in what you are seeing from Clive Palmer. But it’s not different from what you’ve seen from Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, and any number of people who, because they’ve got a large amount of money, think they can throw it around and influence political outcomes. So, it’s a vastly different political outlook, in a vastly different society, with vastly different technological innovations.

KELLY: You talked about in the beginning, you talked about the ‘partisan parliament’ your speech was unusually partisan for a Valedictory Speech, I mean you said you wanted to reach out across the Chamber but that was impossible because of the quote, ‘divisive tone that pervaded this place in the past week’. And then you went on to talk about that 18 years on from Tampa, you say that, ‘American race-based dog-whistle politics is here again’. Now that’s pretty inflammatory stuff –

SWAN: Yeah sure, I had no intention of doing that a week ago. I wrote my speech at the end of last year when I thought it would be delivered, and I talked more generally about the political system and what’s going on in the world for just about all of the speech. But what occurred here last week is something that every Australian ought to be very, very concerned about because what we are essentially seeing from the Government is dog-whistle politics, US style, in a way in which we have not seen since Tampa but it’s actually a lot worse than Tampa. I don’t think in my whole time in the Parliament I’ve seen what we saw when the Government took a national security briefing, and used it in such a brutal and inaccurate partisan way. Really it was a lot worse than children overboard, and that was the point that I made. I had hoped to be able to talk to the other side, but of course yesterday they didn’t turn up anyway and I think that actually says something about them. I do recall when Peter Costello made his last speech in the Parliament; the Government benches at that time were full. We were all there listening to him. Yesterday, from the other side of Parliament we had two people.

KELLY: Well the Government of course would say that they wouldn’t accept your characterisation at all of this debate –

SWAN: No of course they wouldn’t.

KELLY: - and they would say that they are all about protecting our borders and there’s plenty of opinion poll that shows and election results that showed that over the last decade or more that Australians want a Government that is strong on border protection. And then yesterday of course we saw after Labor supporting the refugees Medivac Bill, we saw Labor leader Bill Shorten happy to agree that medical transfers sent form Nauru and Manus Island go to Christmas Island. It seemed to be a capitulation. And really, is Labor any better?

SWAN: Well there’s no need to repeat all of the Government’s lines Fran –

KELLY: Well no, no, no, I mean it’s not repeating the Government’s lines. Anyone looking on would see that Labor last week was slamming the Government for opening Christmas Island and saying that they were a ‘walking, talking billboard for the people smugglers’ by doing that.

SWAN: They are. And that’s what’s going on.

KELLY: And now, Bill Shorten says its fine for the people to go there. Isn’t that an inconsistency?

SWAN: Well the two are not incompatible. Fran, the Government’s propositions here are absurd. Anyone who studies this issue knows that the law that passed the Parliament only relates to people that are there now. The Government is going out to create the impression that they apply to anyone seeking to come here in the future. They have used –

KELLY: No I understand that, but that’s not the point we’re talking about. The point we are talking about –

SWAN: Well that’s the fact. Let’s talk about facts. See we are not in a post-fact world Fran.

KELLY: No, no, no, but we did talk about that fact quite a lot last week here on the program. What’s happened yesterday is that we now know that every one of those asylum seekers will be sent to Christmas Island. A lot of people who supported that Bill say that’s absolutely contradictory to the Bill, but Bill Shorten will support it.

SWAN: Fran we passed a Bill which related to medical situations on the islands. They have sought to say that it is something completely different. And nothing has changed with Christmas Island in that regard. The Government is out there telling lies about national security briefings from ASIO and everyone in the country ought to be very concerned with that fact –

KELLY: Okay, well you’re listening to RN Breakfast, its thirteen past eight. Our guest is Wayne Swan, he’s given his Valedictory Speech. He joined the Parliament in 1993, six years as Treasurer. Of course Wayne Swan you were Treasurer of this country during the GFC and you said in your Valedictory Speech that, ‘that people never feel the bullets you dodged, and with the GFC we dodged a huge one’. If Australia had followed much of the developed world into recession, which we didn’t thankfully, what would this country look like today because you’re talking about the rise of populism and ugly nationalism in other countries?

SWAN: Well it would look a lot more like Europe. And I made those comments in relation to growing inequality of income and wealth, and when the Great Recession came along, here we call it the Global Financial Crisis, it shone a really bright light on growing inequality around the world and of course it accelerated dramatically. Now Australia had done better on those metrics in the last 30 years than many other developed economies, but in recent years we’ve been going backwards. And the point I was trying to make was, if we didn’t intervene in the way in which we did, we would’ve gone down the American road and the road that so many other developed countries went down of massive unemployment and the political and economic polarisation that flowed from that. And the results of that are there for all to see now. You’ve seen the collapse of centre-left parties around the world. You’ve seen the collapse of centre-right parties around the world. And what you’ve seen is the rise of ugly nationalism, and Australia largely had been spared from that. The point I made at the end of my speech yesterday is that what the Government’s now doing in terms of refugees is akin to what is happening elsewhere in the world and we don’t need it. We don’t need it.

KELLY: As you leave this place, you’ll go with what is often tagged with you by your political opponents as the ‘man who brought us debt and deficit’. That you promised a surplus but you never delivered it. The political consequences of the big spend which kept Australia out of recession though it’s clear people agree with that. But in a nutshell, it is this debt/deficit narrative. Was there something that Labor should’ve done, could’ve done, differently to reframe that? And how much does it hurt you that Josh Frydenberg will be the first Treasurer in a long time to deliver a surplus?

SWAN: Well there we go, history has been rewritten again. The truth is this Government promised a surplus in their first budget. And the reason that hasn’t been achieved is the same reason we went into deficit by large; a massive write down of revenues to the tune of $200 billion and the only reason the Government is in, close to, coming back to surplus is because the revenues have returned and the tax to GDP ratio is going up. So, I’m happy to wear their criticism, it’s not factually based. But the truth is what we did here meant that our budget was stronger, that deficit and debt was lower, because we kept people in employment. And the point is that didn’t happen elsewhere, they had large deficit and debt right around the world.

KELLY: Wayne Swan thank you very much for joining us here on Breakfast, I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

SWAN: Thank you.