Tanner glosses over Labor's faults


Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy
By Lindsay Tanner
Scribe, 2011
232 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Lindsay Tanner, the former finance minister in the federal Labor government, laments in his book, Sideshow, the rotting core of democracy in Australia that plumbed its most dismal depths in the lacklustre, “non-of-the-above” elections of 2010.

The commercial media, he says, have been responsible for dumbing down the quality of political debate and sapping the level of popular political engagement.

There is much in Tanner’s critique that is accurate.

Who among the politically engaged is not frustrated by the shoe-horning of politics into the “entertainment frame” of the media, the dilution of the political process to the vacuous sludge of trivia and celebrity, scandal and gossip, the triumph of emotive visual impact over facts and analytical written and spoken content?

Who is not left cynical by the universal employment of “spin” by politicians who are treated as prey by the braying “shock-jocks” of “gotcha” journalism?

Tanner’s demolition job on the media swings wide of the mark, however, because he has one eye shut. He conveniently misses the responsibility of mainstream politicians, not just the media, for the “dumbing down” of democracy.

Tanner argues, for example, that political “spin” is merely a “form of self-defence” by bullied politicians against the attack dogs and sideshow clowns of the media, rather than, in reality, a deflection of legitimate journalistic probing of deceit, lies and do-nothing policies.

Tanner’s frequent quoting of former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair, a consummate liar and still-at-large war criminal, on how “truth becomes almost impossible to communicate” hardly strengthens his case.

Tanner’s portrayal of politicians as victims held “hostage to media dynamics” serves to deflect blame.

The public’s contempt for mainstream politicians is not just the fault of a media, which revels in pollie-bashing, but has much more to do with the bland, pulse-deadening policies of our alleged representatives and their lack of any vision capable of inspiring political excitement.

Tanner’s apologetics degenerate into special pleading when he argues that because the conflict-obsessed media magnify vociferous opposing views on policies that have clear public support, this makes it “so hard to advance” popular policies such as the protection of native forests, queer marriage or seriously tackling climate change.

This excuse for political inaction is only outdone by Tanner’s vested interest in blaming public scorn for politicians’ pay and entitlements (set by themselves, with no “productivity” trade-offs) on the media.

Or possibly by his patronising dismissal of people’s concerns about nuclear power (and their support for the “more outlandish” policies of the Greens) as a result of the media’s “need to scare and shock”.

Tanner sometimes joked with his Labor colleagues that “perhaps we should experiment with governing well” rather than erecting barricades of talking points or fudging numbers. Now there’s an idea, but it’s all too fleeting in his book.

Tanner’s diagnosis that it is the media portrayal of politics which causes “passion and interest to drain from the public debate” invites the justifiable response of “physician, heal thyself”.