Where the problem lies

Tuesday, 10 May 2011 

Of course the government’s Malaysian solution is no more than a regional solution that Australian asylum seeker policy has always been. The idea that “we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come”, rather than, say, we and Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore and anywhere else the boat goes past on the way here, was a little bit of chutzpah that Howard could only get away with in the heady days after 9/11. But then like everything else these days, like today’s Budget, it has become a test of the government’s authority problems, that has nothing to do with asylum seekers, deficits or much else than the nature of Australian politics itself.

It’s that which is really taxing Lindsay’s Tanner mind and that came out in an appearance on 7.30 last week to promote his new book “Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy” that blames the media for the state of Australian politics. This blogger is yet to get round to reading the book but if the interview is anything to go by, it must be the biggest self justification, well, since the last book this blogger read.

Rather than being the cause of the problem, the media’s main issue is that it is too caught up in the problems of the political class to properly get a handle on them. Nevertheless, Leigh Sales delicately put her finger on the key weakness with Tanner’s argument.

Here is someone who was at the centre of government decision-making and who apparently was in sharp disagreement with the direction that government took, especially over a critical area of policy, the ETS. How do we know this? Well, we don’t really. We only have some reports to go by, because at no time did he ever publicly make that clear. What we do know is that he resigned at the most damaging time just when the new leadership was trying to take over, citing nothing more significant than family reasons as he did so.

After Tanner makes the point that at least the Greens “talk about serious stuff”, Sales asks him:

Were you behind the scenes making that point to your own party?

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, internally in discussions, yes, I would always try to put the focus on the merits of the issue and to try to at least keep all of the focus groups, spin, presentation, look like you’re doing something, announceables nonsense at arm’s length, accepting it’s a reality that will always be part of the political landscape, but at times I felt overwhelmed. I sometimes felt like I was talking a foreign language.

LEIGH SALES: Within your own party?

LINDSAY TANNER: Yes, within the realms of the Government. It was almost as if I’d come full circle. I started out in politics as a teenager in student politics, that’s where I ended up. That’s not the fault of anybody, it’s not the fault of individual media outlets, individual politicians, it is just where the game is drifting.

But what was Tanner doing about it? For example, was the ETS dumping important or not? Sales probes further:

Is it accurate that you opposed dumping the ETS?

LINDSAY TANNER: Look, there’s been a lot of stuff on the public record about what occurred in that process. All I’m going to say is that I have no dispute with anything that’s on the public record about that, but I’m not going to add to that public record.

What the hell sort of answer was that? If Tanner says he has no dispute with the public record and that record says he did oppose it, why doesn’t he just say it? Or more pertinently, why did he not say it publicly then, instead of hiding behind family reasons to resign and abandon his seat to the Greens?

It would be nice to think that he did it out of party loyalty – except for the fact that he is now going around telling anyone who listens that same party is a hollow joke. The issue here is not that the media are bullying politicians into being vacuous but that the political class has no social base that would force them to make a stand on anything. Far from pointing out the problem, Tanner refusal to engage in a public principled stance on the ETS is a classic illustration of it.

If only Gerard Henderson had made this basic political point instead of doing as he so often does, make a cheap personal/sociological attack. But then it’s no surprise; if the media have trouble distancing itself from the decline of left-right, for the cultural warriors it is well nigh impossible. For them it’s a case that if you cover one eye, squint really hard with the other, and tilt your head a little to the right, you can just about turn Labor’s fading as a revival of Tony Abbott’s Liberals.

But amazingly, he even does the same in NSW, and claims that Barry O’Farrell’s thumping win showed that the two-party system is alive and well. Yet even a cursory glance (with both eyes) at the last election would reveal that O’Farrell went out of his way to present a small target as possible to keep the attention on Labor. It might be true, as Henderson claims that voters flocked directly to the Coalition because of the fabulousness of Barry. Then again, an alternative possibility may have been that given the decrepit state of the government, voters didn’t feel it was the time for the luxury of minor parties but time to turn to one that could actually govern.

An even more bizarre defense of the political class comes from another cultural warrior, half wrapped up in the cloak of objectivity of being the ABC’s political editor, Chris Uhlmann. After having a go at the “politics haters” by wondering who they think built the roads (the Department of Main Roads?), and pointing out that professional politicians are nice people (so?), he then defends the political class by attacking the community leaders and local governments against that shining example of Federal Government policy of recent years, supported by both sides of politics, the intervention into the NT indigenous communities.

Surprisingly, the intervention has not been a success and the problem Uhlmann thinks is the lack of consultation and support from local communities, which is perhaps not that surprising since it was premised on the unproven assumption that they were sexually abusing their children en masse. But then he thinks it might be understandable that the professional politician would ignore the local politics and simply just act, regardless of what the community thinks – which certainly is understandable because that’s actually what they did.

Uhlmann understanding the need for the smack of firm government in the NT to override communities hints at something unpleasant also buried in Tanner’s argument against the media – namely that the real problem is that the public is so easily swayed by it. What Tanner calls the “national complacency” is a theme that some in the media are also happy running with, as Megalogenis did in his essay last year when he had a go at that spoilt generation of baby boomers that allowed politicians to get away with it. Tanner and Megalogenis may take pot shots across the media-political divide but ultimately it comes down to voters as the problem. Yet anyone with a mild grasp of democracy would know it’s the voters that are the solution. It may take time, as, like at most points in history, we haven’t been here before. But who else do they think will sort it out?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 10 May 2011.

Filed under Media analysis

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15 responses to “Where the problem lies”

  1. kymbos on 10th May 2011 3:25 pm

    I thought Tanner’s responses were strategic and principled, and reflect his understanding of the exact ‘gotcha’ media tactics he is complaining about. He could not trust the media to responsibly and accurately report any comments of his on the Government, and so refused to comment on it. And he was absolutely right – even though he didn’t go there, the media reports were full of ‘Tanner dumps on Government’ bulldust.

    And what are you suggesting he should have done in Government – broken ranks and decried the abandonment of the ETS? If so, you set an impossibly high bar for a senior politician. Anyone with such an approach to politics would never reach a senior position in Government, or opposition.

    Lastly, you don’t know the reasons he decided to quit politics, and whether they were justified or not. He didn’t force a by-election, but waited until the election – hardly the ‘most damaging time’ to go. He doesn’t owe you or us any more explanation of why he left.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 10th May 2011 4:47 pm

    Nor does he owe us a book on how the media and the ‘national complacency’ is to blame for the lousy state of national politics. As someone at the centre of it at the very time he was talking about, I think Sales was perfectly right in asking Tanner to account for what he did about it.

    It may be true that he did resign on the very day that Gillard took over due to family reasons and the fact that some took it as a comment on the leadership change was an unfortunate coincidence. You’re right, we will never really know.

    But here is someone who says that at least the Greens talk to voters like grown ups. The voters of Melbourne elected him in 2007 to bring in an ETS. He was central in the government that broke that promise. Don’t the voters of Melbourne (and others who voted Labor) deserve an explanation of what he thought and why he stayed in government after it happened? Instead they got nothing.

    If politicians are supposed to be accountable for what they do and say then Tanner will be remembered as someone from the left who spent most of his time at the heart of government either cutting the jobs of Canberra workers or saying he was going to.

    Oh, and a book talking about the lousy state of national politics.

  3. Craig Lawton on 10th May 2011 4:50 pm

    He missed the chance to become Lathan II! 🙂

  4. The Piping Shrike on 10th May 2011 4:54 pm

    The thinking man’s Latham?

  5. Jenauthor on 10th May 2011 6:43 pm

    Sorry — but from where I sit the media is very much in the frame. They are who decides what I am informed about. Unless a political junkie, I wouldn’t know half of what the govt has done or not done. All I would know is that Tony Abbott is, in the media’s eyes, the most important person in Australia.

    If I ask those uninformed, they get their political news from the likes of the Australian or Telegraph. The ridiculous spin coming from that end of town is neither educated nor edifying.

    Watching TV journos describe what has happened during the day, I often wonder if they are living on the same planet, let alone the same country.

    When the media starts informing, I’ll start respecting them. Until then I’ll take their reports with all the salt they deserve.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 10th May 2011 6:52 pm

    Quite right too. But I don’t think you’re the only one who takes what the media says with a grain of salt. I think a lot of people do. That’s why I think the role of media, while important, tends to be over-stated.

    Would they have distorted Tanner coming out and saying he disagreed with government change to the ETS while in office? Maybe, but Tanner never gave us a chance to find out. Coulda woulda shoulda.

  7. kymbos on 10th May 2011 9:05 pm

    He doesn’t owe us a book? Ok then. Be sure to get back to us when politicians start meeting your expectations.

  8. Catching up on 10th May 2011 10:27 pm

    There must be many out here that have some sympathy with Mr. Tanners views on the media. His book has already sold out.

    There is plenty of evidence that proves Mr. Tanner had made his mind up to resign long before he announced it. He had already sold his home and moved out of his electorate.

    Think about what happened that might and the likelihood of a quick election, he had no choice but to make announcementment.

  9. Dr_Tad on 11th May 2011 7:09 pm

    I think TPS is pretty much right that the media has been too severely blamed for the crisis of the political class when that crisis is much more deeply rooted, not least in the problems of the political class itself.

    To understand why Tanner can only ever produce a partial and wholly self-serving account of the crisis of mainstream politics you need look no further than his essay in April’s The Monthly — a paean to Tony Blair that plays up Blair’s commitment to free markets and “internationalism” (read “liberal imperialism”) as his great achievements.

    Some people never learn.

  10. Riccardo on 11th May 2011 9:43 pm

    Actually the fascinating part of this piece is the Uhlmann part.

    I predicted TPS would link Tanner to the Mega piece earlier, the 24 hour news cycle etc. Reality is, media are only ‘the mice at play’ because ‘the cat’s away’ in this case, the cat being a raison d’etre for the Australian political class.

    But Uhlmann’s got a bad case of Stockholm or Helsinki or whatever the disease is. Really sympathising with his captors. That we should like politicians is never going to fly. Worse, that we should like mediocre ones like the ones we elect. We never seem to manage to elect a Churchill or De Gaulle or even a Castro. Larger than life. We just seem to get cheap and nasty suburban lawyers, ex union staffers or the odd former celeb.

    Come on people, time to put the Australian Government for sale on eBay and see whether the Chinese can outbid the US with its printed money and make us an offer we can’t refuse!

  11. Riccardo on 11th May 2011 9:50 pm

    Can some of you who come onto this blog to push partisan barrows please answer: What does Australia need a political class for?

    Could we manage instead with a French style uber-bureaucracy with a mission from God and a few token pollies to act as mouthpieces? A Singapore style ‘election as safety valve’ while the real job of governing is done elsewhere? Howabout the Japanese style confluence of big business and bureaucracy with a revolving door of pollies?

    We assume Australia has it right despite all the evidence to the contrary. Gillard and Abbott speak to me of the fundamental exhaustion of a process began over a century ago, designed to resolve class/sectarian/economic interest disputes by sharing the pie, but a process that has now run its course.

    A Rudd-ite nation of ad-hoc committees may well have been a better option.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 11th May 2011 10:06 pm

    Doing without a political class, we’re getting that anyway aren’t we? When was the last Budget that didn’t look as though it was written by Treasury?

    I too think the Uhlmann stance is striking, especially given the contempt he shows for some politicians. I’m thinking Rudd, so there’s probably the answer. Old cultural warriors are the last defenders of the left-right ding-dong, and supporting those politicians caught up in it is the least he can do.

  13. Thewetmale on 15th May 2011 2:03 pm

    Kymbos @ 1 nails my disagreements with this.
    “Would they have distorted Tanner coming out and saying he disagreed with government change to the ETS while in office?”
    The answer is a firm yes, and Tanner knows it.
    Other than that, good piece. And, while I’m here, as a frequent lurker, thanks for your blog Shrike.

  14. dedalus on 15th May 2011 9:27 pm

    I really think you underestimate the media’s influence, AND the electorate’s intelligence. But I don’t want to go there. I want to just comment on the sheer incompetence and unprofessionalism of hack journalists – print and video. It’s something you really should do a comprehensive piece on.

    The single question in a media conference from some fool who asked Abbott if Abbottabad (whatever) was named after a relative says it all. This after the monk had practically begged for questions.

    Repeating endlessly the broken glass incident on ABC says it all again.

    Grog’s Gamut blog did an exhaustive analysis of a Gillard media conference, in the last election campaign, at a school in Brisbane, in which ONE of some 30 plus questions related IN ANY REAL WAY to the announcements she’d just made on an important education policy.

    All this drivel from LOWLY PAID hacks is much worse than the rantings of shock jocks who are HIGHLY PAID provocateurs doing effective hatchet work. Those we can ignore. Those don’t assail our eyeballs and pollute the nightly news.

    Only the spectacle of whores like Latham, Costa and Costello prostituting themselves before the Bolt for a few measly bucks they dont really need is more grovellingly ingratiating.

    As Tanner rightly says, you can’t stop the journos hacking out their poorly written prose of innuendo and deceit. The great echo chamber! But what’s really, really dispiriting is the media intervierws. Why politicians don’t slap down these idiots immediately the asinine questions leave their mouths is beyond me. Hawkie or Keating wouldn’t have tolerated this crap. Nor, to his credit, would Howard.

  15. Riccardo on 17th May 2011 2:20 pm

    Was there a golden age of journalism?

    Bob Hawke wrote about propping up the bar of the John Curtin with hard drinking, hard smoking members of the press, the sort who could tell Frank/Kerry or Keith/Rupert where to go and shove their partisanship.

    But according to the same tome, these were replaced with ‘family friendly’ women who liked health and jogging and showed no interest in finding out the truth behind the story in their after-hours.

    We then seem to have been infiltrated by undergrads and partisans.

    Switzer wrote how he returned from the Cato Institute to the Australian, like that’s what people do every day, go from Right-wing think tank straight into broadsheet editor’s chair. No-one batted an eyelid.

    Now I’m not complaining of the partisanship or ideological nature, rather, what qualification is working at a Rightwing Think Tank for editing a newspaper?

    Column filling has turned into journalism, and now Fairfax is getting rid of subediting which will mean your average Fairfax paper will read like a printed twitter feed.

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