Thursday, June 27, 2013

Who is Chris Bowen?

A lot of people want to know

Asked about the economy in his first question time as Treasurer on Thursday Chris Bowen did something extraordinary.

He spoke succinctly and sat down.

Nothing could have distinguished him more from his predecessor. Wayne Swan would have spoken for the full four minutes and then used a follow-up “Dorothy Dixer” to keep going.

It wasn’t because Bowen was unprepared. He had the facts at his fingertips (as well-briefed Treasurers always do) and he deployed them as well as anyone who has gone before him.

“I like his style,” said Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson, who Bowen made a point of phoning during a day packed with Treasury briefings, Question Time, an interview on 7.30 and being sworn in.

“He told me he was sincere about wanting to repair relations with the private sector. It felt like starting over.”

Asked the one word that best describes the new treasurer Mr Anderson picked “serious”...

“I have dealt with him as small business minister, as assistant treasurer and as minister for immigration. He gets down to work.”

“And he worries. As immigration minister I could feel the burdens on his shoulders whenever I walked into his office. He would walk out from behind his desk and sit down in a chair, and I felt as if I wanted to give him a chair.”

Business Council president Tony Shepherd said Bowen was “decent”.

“He is straightforward, pro-business by inclination, and one of those people you can talk with rather than get caught up in the politics of division.”

At the small end of town Peter Strong of the Council of Small Business says Bowen is the most impressive minister he has met.

“He gets business and he gets the fact that we vote. It might come from having grown up in Sydney’s western suburbs and having been Mayor of Fairfield. There’s nothing negative about him.”

Reportedly promised the job by Kevin Rudd during his unsuccessful attempt to regain the Labor leadership in 2012, Bowen appears to have been preparing to be Treasurer for years. He studied economics at Sydney University. His predecessors as Treasurer had arts or law degrees. And he has applied economic solutions to broader problems. Fuelwatch, promoted enthusiastically by a 34-year old Bowen shortly after his appointment as assistant treasurer in 2007 was a textbook response to concerns about imperfect competition. If consumers felt they were being overcharged for petrol, why not let them know exactly what each supplier was charging so they could vote with their feet?

The so-called Malaysia Solution for asylum seekers was another essentially economic solution. It made use of incentives. Asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be sent to the back of the queue.

Both schemes are regarded as failures. Labor abandoned Fuelwatch and the High Court struck down the Malaysia Solution, but both were innovative attempts to deal with intractable problems.

Some who have dealt with him as immigration minister describe him as ill at ease. They say he became less willing to consult as he developed increasingly draconian policies.

As Treasurer he will be watched even more closely. He is trying to get off to a good start.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald and Age

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