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The Money Men by Chris Bowen rates Australia’s 12 best treasurers

22 August 2015 336 views No Comment

The Money Men: Australia’s 12 Most Notable Treasurers
By Chris Bowen
MUP, 472pp, $34.95

Many books have been written about Australian prime ministers but treasurers have not received the same attention — until now. This is strange because being treasurer is justifiably regarded as the country’s second most important job.

In The Money Men, Chris Bowen, who was treasurer for four months under Kevin Rudd and is now shadow treasurer, has written an honest and unbiased evaluation of occupants of the office. He demonstrates considerable sympathy for them, as well as understanding.

In the author’s assessment the top 12 federal treasurers have been: George Turner, William Watt, Earle Page, Ted Theodore, Ben Chifley, Arthur Fadden, Jim Cairns, Bill Hayden, John Howard, Paul Keating, Peter Costello and Bowen’s predecessor in the job, Wayne Swan.

Despite their varying degrees of success, all 12 men (and they are all men) worked hard to create a better economy. One hopes that before too long Australia will have a female treasurer.

Running through Bowen’s perceptive analysis is the theme of the Treasury as an institution that developed under the tutelage of successive treasurers. Hence this book usefully begins with an analysis of the role of Turner who, as Bowen explains, established the Treasury as “a body of accountants, set up to keep accurate records for the government. But, as he makes clear, things have moved on.

So who does Bowen regard as the best of the best? Keating tops the list, followed by former Queensland premier Theodore. Page is in third place, followed by Fadden, Hayden, Costello and, no doubt surprisingly for some, Swan.

Significantly, Keating and Theodore were both self-educated. But although Keating, who would go on to be PM, did not attend university, Bowen observes he “sought out older, more experienced men of business and taught himself so well that he had a remarkable grasp of market economics.

And even though Theodore left school at 12, he was one of the most widely read politicians in parliament and one of the finest orators. Like Keating, Theodore also sought out experts, here and overseas, including John Maynard Keynes, to help him understand the economy. As a result, he realised what fiscal and economic policies were required to protect Australia during the Depression.

In fact, Theodore understood our perilous situation, especially regarding large-scale unemployment, much better than, as Bowen puts it, “some of the so-called experts who argued for a cut in government spending during a time of acute economic downturn.

One of the great Australian tragedies is the high likelihood that, had Theodore not had to stand down as treasurer due to the Mungana mines scandal, he may well have saved the jobs of tens of thousands of workers. Indeed a close reading of The Money Men suggests he was arguably the most talented politician never to be PM.

Bowen compares the two highly performing autodidacts — Keating and Theodore — with the academically qualified Cairns, who in this book comes across, at least to me, as hopeless, incompetent and sometimes dangerous.

Bowen’s previous book, Hearts and Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor, explained his political manifesto, offering detailed suggestions as to how, after its defeat in 2013, the federal ALP should best position itself to challenge the Coalition government.

It is therefore fascinating to read in The Money Men that Bowen hopes a significant side effect of his research and writing about the ­careers of our top treasurers will help improve his own understanding of the job — should he ever be offered it again.

Given the present crop of mediocre MPs in parliament, to this reviewer Bowen comes across as a person, and as a politician, of principle who could well become a great Labor treasurer, and perhaps even prime minister.

The Money Men is a thoughtful and, I think, accurate analysis of Australian treasurers and an outstanding contribution to our political and economic history.

As Bowen himself rightly concludes, a treasurer not only needs a good relationship with the PM but also must push the envelope when it comes to politically difficult but economically necessary reform.

“Prime ministers will naturally be nervous about these reforms, but a good prime minister-treasurer relationship will see a balance reached. Importantly, a prime minister will feel more comfortable giving a treasurer the ­authority to embark on economic reforms if they are confident in the treasurer’s ability to sell those reforms.

And as Howard said to Bowen last year, “a treasurer must be in the media every day. Every day. Making the case for change, being one of the government’s most effective communicators. This is surely a lesson that our present Treasurer, Joe Hockey, should take to heart.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, August 22-23, 2015, review, Books, p. 18

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