Lindsay Tanner is not the first to have gone from privately educated schoolboy to university student socialist … and on to a career in the trade union movement and Labor politics before settling into semi-retirement as a gentleman farmer.
From his abode in country Victoria, the former cabinet minister in Kevin Rudd’s Labor government has written Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy. According to Tanner, the two key rules that govern the practice of Australian politics are “look like you’re doing something” and “don’t offend anyone who matters”.
Tanner maintains that public life has descended “into the artificial media world of virtual reality” and he primarily blames the media for this.
In Tanner’s view, the media controls access to the electorate and “politicians are now so desperate to get media coverage at almost any cost that they willingly participate in entertainment formats that have little connection with any political issue”. The point is referenced to Peter Costello’s decision to dance the macarena on Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s show and the author’s own appearance on the AFL Footy Show in Melbourne.
Tanner maintains the electorate is so fed up with such policy-lite trivia that last year’s election campaign “produced a result in which Australians effectively voted for ‘none of the above'”.
This is a clever point, but a trivial one nevertheless. Last year the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, won about 43 per cent of the primary vote. For Labor, under Julia Gillard’s leadership, the figure was about 38 per cent. The Greens gained close to 12 per cent. In other words, more than 80 per cent of electors gave their first preference to one of the two major parties. That neither party won a majority of seats was merely a reflection of the closeness of the vote.
The figure does not support Tanner’s assertion that voters wanted neither Labor nor Coalition.
The essential problem with the theory on the dumbing down of democracy is that it is only a snapshot of representative government in Australia. Tanner only has to look over the Murray River to realise this.
Last month the Coalition in NSW, led by Barry O’Farrell, achieved one of the greatest victories in Australian political history – winning more than 64 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. Moreover, O’Farrell achieved this result without engaging the media seeking entertainment. The NSW premier did not dance on TV and he did not invent sports skits in which only he could appear. O’Farrell ran an old-fashioned campaign based on hard work, simple messages and constant visits to Labor-held seats.
Tanner was an able trade union official and he became a successful, and thoughtful politician. However, what is lacking in Sideshow – and in the author’s recent media interviews – is a lack of self-awareness. Tanner was one of the so-called gang of four who ran the government, along with Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard.
It is widely acknowledged that Australia has been well governed over the past 25 years under administrations led by Hawke, Keating and Howard. However, government became dysfunctional under Rudd. This has been documented by Barrie Cassidy in his book The Party Thieves.
Interviewed on 7.30 last Thursday, Tanner declared that his career in politics had almost come full circle.
“I started out in politics as a teenager in student politics [and] that’s where I ended up,” he said.
“That’s not the fault of anyone. It’s not the fault of individual media outlets [or] individual politicians. It’s just where the game is drifting.”
So no one is to blame, then. But what about Tanner? If he really believed that the Rudd cabinet room resembled the Students’ Representative Council at Melbourne University circa 1975, then he should have resigned. Instead he took part in approving some of the most expensive projects ever by an Australian government – including the stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis and the national broadband network.
On ABC TV’s Insiders on Sunday Tanner defended the decision-making under the Rudd government just days after he depicted it as akin to 1970s student politics.
There are similar inconsistencies in Sideshow. On page 21 the author criticises journalists for liking to “pick up something about a politician’s clothes, physical appearance, language or demeanour”.
However, on page 125 he writes: “Some might think it strange that, for a number of years, Julia Gillard has dyed her hair red. In fact, it’s perfectly sensible: it makes her more noticeable.”
On Sunday Tanner ran the line that, in June last year, the Labor caucus “clearly made a judgment that the intensity of media pressure” was such that the replacement of Rudd “could not be resisted”. Yet the fact is that the Canberra press gallery missed the antagonism building up to Rudd in the caucus. When Rudd became Labor leader in 2006 only one Victorian Labor MP opposed him – Stephen Conroy. When Rudd fell last June, Tanner was his only Victorian supporter.
Sideshow makes a lot of valid criticisms of the impact of the cult of celebrity on modern politics. But Tanner has not discovered a new iron law of politics. The O’Farrell experience demonstrates politics can still be essentially about good government.