I had the good fortune to meet Peter Walsh once. He came into the store a few years ago, some time between Kevin Rudd’s writing of cheques for dead people and Julia Gillard’s program of unnecessary and vastly overpriced school buildings. I ventured a question about his opinion on these shameless rorts. He replied with a laugh: ‘Don’t get me started!’ Even at the time, I regretted not getting him started. It would have been a fascinating monologue.
Peter Walsh was probably the last minister in any Labor government anywhere in Australia that could count to twenty without removing his shoes and socks. And when he did count to twenty, he got twenty and only twenty. Not two thousand, or seven billion, or whatever number would have been politically expedient on the day. Walsh served as Finance Minister in the ALP government of Bob Hawke between 1984 and 1990; when he died in April of 2015, one of his obituaries was headlined ‘Peter Walsh was mean with other people’s money’. Walsh would have worn that description like Olympic gold.
Walsh’s passing fell between the deaths of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former government leader in the state of Victoria, Joan Kirner. Both demonstrated the key weaknesses of the modern left: a belief in government as a tool for social engineering, and an even stronger belief in the mythical money tree – that inexhaustible provider of cash. Both left their relative jurisdictions in a mess. Not in spite of the disasters they created, but because of them, Whitlam and Kirner were both eulogised as heroes of their party. In comparison to their farewells, the death of Peter Walsh barely rated a mention. The only quality the left values higher than incompetence is glorious incompetence.
Peter Walsh, even though he belonged to the left, was in many ways its ideological opposite. He had very little time for what we nowadays call the victim industry. As Jack Waterford put it: He was a scourge of special pleading, bad arguments, intellectual humbug and assertions associated with apple-pie ideas that were not supported by evidence or experience. His hard nosed attitude to finance was rooted in his youth and upbringing. Walsh was an anomaly in Australian politics, a Labor man with a farming background. His family were farmers in the WA town of Kellerberrin, traditionally Country Party supporters. Peter opposed conscription and capital punishment, and believed the Country Party to be corrupt. In rural Australia, Labor was his default option. So it was that he entered the Senate in 1974 without the usual ties of a Labor member to the unions. This gave him an unusual freedom, of which he took full advantage.
As Finance Minister he was an independent force. He didn’t win every battle, but he won enough to make a difference. Walsh could resist begging from special interest groups without a single tear of regret. Whitlam abolished fees for tertiary education; Walsh, ten years later, was a strong voice in the re-establishment of fees. He was reluctant to splash around the taxpayer’s dollar and equally harsh in his views of his own side. (Harsher than I recall most of the media being at the time.) After his stint in Finance he spent three years on the backbench. In a newspaper column during this period he dared suggest that the economic benefits of winning the right to stage the Olympics (Melbourne in 1996) were mostly inspired by wishful thinking. The grownups version of telling little children there’s no Santa Claus.
Walsh also served as a member of Labor’s Expenditure Review Committee during the 1980s. Considering the mess that befell us after the 1987 crash, it’s fair to say that having his hand on the purse strings went some way to protecting the country from even worse trouble.
We could use Walsh’s unsentimental style in Canberra again right now. Our burbling git of a Prime Minister has today announced July 2 as the firm date for an election of both Houses – a double dissolution. Since his ousting of Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull has performed badly, except in one respect. He has performed a feat thought impossible: he has made Labor and its leader, Bill Shorten, look like a viable alternative government.We can now look forward to both Labor and Liberal parties offering expensive sweets. Whichever side gets power, the nation’s finances will be a Magic Pudding for every special interest group that can write a government submission.
I can only hope that the Parliamentary Library holds a few copies of this.
In spite of the title, there’s wisdom inside for those who seek it.