If, amid the chaos of the crisis, anyone should notice.
WE GO by the numbers these days.
Economists and commentators analyse them for clues about the true state of the economy. The last set of numbers, on unemployment and the national accounts, were much better than anticipated. Treasurer Wayne Swan breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to a trouble-free sleep when the March-quarter GDP figures indicated Australia was not in technical recession. Political fates are decided where the national statistician places his decimal point.
It was different in the early 1970s, when Billy McMahon was prime minister. According to journalist Eric Walsh, McMahon was prone to "make up statistics, just to sound like he was on top of everything". When Hansard came around he would get his staff to correct all the figures he had spouted out.
No serious political figure would get away with that today. McMahon, who had an economics degree, considered himself one of Australia's greatest treasurers. Pity it was under his watch that Australia first encountered the phenomenon of stagflation.
In 1984, Paul Keating went one better than McMahon when he won the Euromoney magazine's finance minister of the year award for his decision to float the Australian dollar and allow foreign banks to compete here. For a while Keating was known as "the world's greatest treasurer". He wore the mantle well until his record was ruined by having a policy-induced slowdown morph into a recession.
Peter Costello was Australia's longest-serving treasurer and his greatest achievement was to steer Australia clear of the 1997 East Asian economic crisis. He feels aggrieved he never won more plaudits for his long reign.
While in office, Costello would delight in lording it over Swan over his command of his brief and his opposite's inability to land a punch. In the corridors of Parliament he was to be heard singing the old Al Jolson number - "Swanee, how I love you, how I love you, my dear old Swanee". Swan, however, might be about to have the last laugh.
Now the rather colourless, ponderous Swan has a historic achievement within his grasp - to be the treasurer of the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nation not to succumb to an official recession. When Swan receives the next two national accounts figures in September and December, they are likely to show the economy still growing, even if by just the smallest amount. He will be in the running to be nominated for the gong Keating won, provided the Europeans notice.
We can say that Swan's strategy will hold because his stimulus packages are timed to take effect in the next two quarters. So far so good. If the economy escapes recession now it will be the first time that America, Europe and Japan are mired in the mud and we aren't. It will also mean Australia continues its longest period of uninterrupted economic growth for almost 20 years.
While the award would give Swan a boost, the accolade does not, of course, promise invincibility to future economic challenges. Keating, for instance, faced the embarrassment of the "banana republic" crisis in May 1986 when the dollar collapsed after the terms of trade turned against us. Keating did not help the dollar's plight by warning that Australia was in danger of becoming a banana republic if it did not reduce its consumption of imports.
In that respect, a challenge facing Swan is the very reverse - the rising value of the dollar and how it will affect our export sector.
Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.
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