Book review: Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow

Friday, 28 October 2011 

"You know nothing of my work!"

This is a book written by a politician, about Australian politics, but ostensibly with very little politics in it. Instead, what we have is the sort of two-bob pop media analysis that would have Marshall McLuhan spinning in his grave. Or at least it appears like that on the surface. In reality under this complaint about the media lurks a political argument that is highly revealing about the mindset of the political class today.

Tanner is well aware that a book from a key government player who left it on the day that it met one of the most extraordinary ends of any since Federation, would be expected to have at least something to say about it. Too bad.

Given the sideshow syndrome, I know that most political journalists will quickly scan this book, looking for shock revelations about the inner workings of the Rudd government. They’ll search for attacks on my former colleagues and they’ll look for diverting anecdotes from inside the cabinet room. I can save them the bother: they’ll find none of those things here.

The relatively small number of journalists who read this book will search for someone to blame for the problems it reports. Somehow or other they will be looking to create a headline that begins with ‘Tanner attacks …’ One or two will engage with the argument in the book, given that it is largely about the media.

But it seems to this blogger to be quite natural that even the most serious journalist would expect a book written so shortly after the June coup would have something on it, especially given his well documented long-running antagonism with the usurper.

But as he believably claims in the book, he was making plans to leave the scene long before Rudd’s fall. Underneath a criticism of the media, this book does indeed attack, quite savagely, not only the Gillard government (and especially the 2010 campaign), but the Rudd government as well and indeed the entire political system. It’s just that he doesn’t think it’s their fault:

No one in the Labor government, or even in the Howard government, should be blamed for surrendering to these pressures. If we had taken a purist approach, we would have left ourselves naked in the middle of a media storm, defenceless against the irresistible commercial pressures on the mainstream media to sell newspapers and win ratings.

Poor politicians. If they try to do the right thing, they will be slaughtered like lambs by the media, and presumably the feckless, entertainment hungry public that consumes it.

Those who want to blame the media for the state of politics need to get past two inconvenient facts. The first is the widespread dislike in the media itself for this trivialisation of politics. Indeed many of the complaints about the trivialisation of politics that Tanner quotes come from the media itself, especially after the last campaign (Tanner laughingly claims that “self-analysis is not exactly common in either media or politics”. Do they do anything else these days?). Tanner does rightly point out the obvious contradiction in coverage by papers like The Age that bemoan the trivialisation of politics in the editorials, then only add to it on the front page. Tanner’s point is that while the media may complain over the state of politics, it is playing its part to undermine it by presenting it as entertainment.

But here’s news for Tanner: as entertainment, politics suck. The actors are unattractive, the dialogue derivative, the plot thin and, despite the best efforts of the World’s Funniest Former Treasurer, the laughs are few. The question is not so much why the media report politics as entertainment, but why do they bother reporting it at all?

The answer is hinted at in one of the more ironic sections of the book complaining about how the media constantly looks for conflict and, as Tanner claims, is utterly dependent on it.

If required, suitable conflict will be manufactured in order to generate a story. Stories are typically presented through a lens of conflict between two parties or positions, to maximise their dramatic qualities. Everything is focussed on attracting and presenting the audience with simple choices between good and bad, or the red team and the blue team.

But conflict and the competition between competing interests is precisely the point of politics. If there was no need to contend over social claims there would be no need for politics. In Australia, politics historically revolved around the contention between organised labour and those who oppose it. It is since organised labour lost its political voice, and so removing the need for those to politically oppose it around such issues as union power, wage claims and social spending, that political debate has become hollowed out.

If there is one problem with the media at the moment (either mainstream or alternative) is the inability to point this out, but simply to carry on reporting the same old two-party conflict as though little has changed. So we have the gross exaggeration of the Coalition’s “disruption” to the current Parliament from commentators (clearly unaware of what the Coalition can be like when they really get going) when in reality it only conceals the very lack of contest over any major issue.

Indeed, far from undermining the political system, the media seems to be doing its damnedest to keep the whole two-party ding-dong going. This is not just shown in the way they now manufacture a political contest where there is none, but the discomfort they showed during Rudd’s time when he started presenting the old politics as having had its day. The reality is that far from wishing to undermine it, the Australian media is joined at the hip to the current political system and is getting caught up in its problems.

This brings us to the second inconvenient fact for those that want to blame the media for driving the political process in the wrong direction: if the media doesn’t like the trivialisation, the public doesn’t appear that impressed either. Tanner claims that the media acts like this to sell papers and boost ratings. Except it doesn’t work. Newspapers are in long term decline and, despite attempts to fluff up current affairs programs, their ratings continue to fall. The public obviously think that if they want to be entertained they may as well watch … entertainment, rather than politics dressed up as it.

Indeed, far from driving public perception on politics, the media is losing as much influence as the political class they are reporting on. Journalists have rarely been regarded well in Australia, bumping down the bottom like politicians, but this disguises the decline in the authority of the press and the media more generally. While some may bang on about the partisanship of Murdoch against the current government, in reality the press is far less partisan than it was 40 or 50 years ago. This is not just in response to the decreasing difference between the two major parties, but the declining authority of the press to advocate one side over the other.

The press do have influence, but less over the electorate than over a weakened political class becoming more detached from it. That’s why Tanner quotes so extensively from The Australian. Less because of its influence with the public at large, hardly anyone reads it. But more because Murdoch has designed it to influence the political class, not just through the use of Newspoll to tell a detached political class what the public is thinking, but also through the constant stream of reports of conflict, disputes and leadership rumblings that would send a mainstream readership to sleep.

This influence over the political class is not just direct; The Australian’s ability to make conflict where there is none makes it an essential source for news outlets like the ABC as well. It’s why if there is any of Murdoch’s papers to go behind the pay wall, The Australian seems the most sensible. Not because it is widely read or even enjoyed by those that do, but, like the AFR, because people have jobs that require them to read it.

But ultimately this book is not really about the media. Thankfully, because the worst parts in the book are when he tries to explain why this is happening through a hodge-podge of sociology media theories, that seem to boil down to 1) that media is run commercially (as opposed to when?) and 2) these days there is too much choice on the TV, so it is easier to change channel from serious programs (but there has always been a Channel 10!).

In fact, readers may not know that:

Quantitative research demonstrates that media-content preference is now a better predictor of political awareness than education level. Viewers who favour entertainment content and do not have pay television have higher levels of political knowledge than those who do have it, because they have less viewing choice.

The logic of this paragraph doesn’t quite work, but it’s probably something to do with too big plasma TVs.

But if viewers do switch off political programmes given the choice, why? And why do journalists feel the need to jazz politics up? Can it be because the politics being covered has less relevance to our lives? No, it can’t be that. It’s because:

… they misrepresent and exaggerate because they are human. Their excessive response to risk and fear isn’t as much a weakness specific to the media as a reflection of the hard-wiring in the human brain.

Tanner’s media analysis wouldn’t pass a sociology module and his claim that an influential media is the ultimate driver of the political process is unconvincing. But then this is a book written by someone who knows more about politics than media sociology and despite Tanner’s attempts to disguise it, this is ultimately a political book.

The over-arching charge against the media is that they are no longer informing and treating seriously both policy and the need to educate the public. This is a similar charge made by the more serious political journalists quoted by Tanner, and some equally po-faced commentators in the blogosphere.

This need to educate voters is revealing, because politics is not an HSC exam. Tanner is confusing politics with policy. Politics is about the assertion of interests, not the bureaucrat’s job of formulating policy. The only thing one really needs to know in politics is how to get those interests realised.

This view of the educating role of the press and politicians harks back, of course, to that golden period in the 1980s when journalists were supposedly educating the public why they should go along with Labor’s deregulation of the economy.

But they weren’t really. The only “educating” going on was to convince Labor’s base why they should go against their interests and support a government that was so detrimental to their living standards. In reality, whether they were educated or not was irrelevant since there was no alternative – other than the Liberals who wanted to take it even further. The idea that the voting public was educated in the 1980s is a comforting myth to disguise the dead end much of Labor’s traditional voters found themselves in at the time.

How little the voting public was educated or, indeed, convinced was shown by Labor’s vote sliding through this reform period and only perking up in 1993, when Labor finally opposed the Liberals’ intention to carry on the reforms under Fightback. After then it was downhill all the way, until Labor, for a brief while, allowed a leader to run against it. The serious business of Australian politics was the contest between organised labour and business interests. The basis of that was dealt a mortal blow during the Hawke/Keating years, after then there was nothing but the unravelling.

This gets to the core of the problem with Tanner’s argument. Like much of the “serious” press gallery, Tanner sees the Hawke Keating years as the Golden Age of serious politics, when in reality it was the time when its back was broken. As a result he confuses the consequences of what has happened since that time, the trivialising and hollowing out of the political system, with the problem itself.

While the book has many sharp observations of the relationship between the media and the political class, he reads them upside down. Rather than being how the political class adapts to an all-powerful media, it is really how it adapts to the loss of a social base – and how the media have attempted to maintain the show as though little has changed.

Here he so well describes what the lack of a real social base means for political parties, even if he doesn’t get the reason:

… if politicians choose to persist with what they believe is the right policy, and to make the issue a major policy battle, they run the risk that not only will opponents be antagonised, but that many middle ground voters will be turned off by the attention given to what they now see as a problem of marginal importance, and will thus lose faith in the government’s priorities. This in turn pressures politicians into positioning themselves with low-risk, default policy options, relying on their opponents’ negatives to win.

Having to operate in this way, because of the lack of any real base in society, it is no wonder that even the slightest breeze from the media can become, in the words of one Rudd advisor, a “media cyclone”.

That is not, however, to say that Tanner is unaware of the increasing detachment from the political process since the Hawke/Keating years:

between 1987 and 2007 the percentage of people following elections on television fell from 51 per cent to 37 per cent; those following from radio fell from 27 per cent to 19 per cent; and those through newspapers from 30 per cent to 21 per cent.

and he even notes in a later part of the book the decline of “social intermediaries” such as trade unions, churches and political parties as well as:

the decline in political competition based on class interests and the fading of class-based organisations has meant that many more voters are both indifferent and fickle.

But he attributes it to the media, globalisation, and even affluence – anything but what those “class-based” organisations actually did.

As a result, he also has an upside down view of what is driving the changes in voter thinking that can have some unpleasant connotations. Tanner notes that “the climate of disdain for the political process generated by the media turning politics into a sideshow has triggered a revolt by educated voters” to the Greens.

But they were not the first:

The revolt of the educated classes directly parallels the rise of One Nation in the 1990s, which reflected a revolt by the less educated. The symbolic issue for the more educated is climate change, with asylum-seekers also prominent. The symbolic issue for the less educated was multiculturalism, with microeconomic reform also important.

That the less educated seem to have cottoned on to something faster than the “educated” gives a slightly new meaning to the term “education”. But of course, Tanner sees this the other way round, and the growing detachment of voters from the political system coming first from those who are a bit thick. This underlying contempt for the great unwashed who have forsaken the light on the hill, is recognisable right across the spectrum of the left these days; from a government that thinks the best way to shore up its base is to toughen up on asylum seekers (with spectacularly successful results), to protestors who think waving placards telling us that there are very rich people and massive inequality is actually telling us something we didn’t already know.

Indeed this book suggests the last ones to finally wake up to what has been going on for the last forty years are highly educated, thoughtful politicians like Tanner. This is not a surprise. Tanner entered Parliament in the 1993 election, the last hurrah of the two party system, and is part of that technocrat political tradition that has since tried to make the best of that subsequent hollowing out. In place of conflict and sectional interests, which had defined the Australian political framework, there was supposed to be serious discussion and consideration of policy for the policy itself rather than what any particular side would get out of it. It was a time of cross-party Cabinets and when elections became a bit of a bore and less frequent fixed terms were fashionable. It was especially favoured by the left of the party, who, ironically, welcomed the internal consequence of the end of Labor’s traditional role representing organised labour, namely the weakening of a factional system of which they were a perennial loser.

Maybe this understandable enthusiasm for the technocrat model is why Tanner is also a little insensitive to its weakness: the lack of any social base meant there was no real base for authority. Rudd was more sensitive to the resulting anti-politics sentiment and more adept at dealing with it. Tanner seems oblivious to this anti-politics in the type of shows, like Rove, that demanded their pound of flesh by subjecting their political guests to minor humiliations, which Rudd could deal with far better than most of his contemporaries. Dealing with anti-political sentiment was also an element in initiatives like Grocerywatch, which were widely scorned, including by Tanner. These were pretty lame in themselves, but were part of Rudd’s lowering expectations of what government could achieve, which even on a vexed issue like asylum seekers could work, for a while.

Indeed for a while, the new Technocrat Labor model seemed to work exceptionally well, giving the party control over every government for the first time in its history. But it was built on sand. Representing no sectional interest, the government ended up only representing little more than itself and in Canberra, an increasingly narrow part at that, of which Tanner was a privileged member. In the states, Labor governments were swept away on the sort of landslides usually reserved for major scandals. It ended in Canberra on 24 June 2010 when the old party reasserted itself for what is now clearly one last turn on the merry-go-round and it is no surprise that it was that day when Tanner ended his political career as well.

While the media have applauded this type of technocrat politics in theory, in reality they have struggled with it. Like Tanner, journalists have hankered after the Hawke/Keating years but fail to realise that the basis of that government was its relationship with an organised labour base that it used, and disposed of, for the last time. For the media, who played such a supporting role, it was a time of a much closer relationship with government than with the Technocrat Labor that followed. Tanner notes the entry of journalists into the top level of government, partly indicating the way that government sees media management as something to be done directly with the public rather than via the press. When the media complains of the spin of Technocrat Labor, what they mean is the increasingly formal and detached relationship that the government has with the press, being left to some inexperienced 30 year old press officer.

But perhaps the media has struggled with Technocrat Labor because, as commercial enterprises, they are aware that the public has as well. Tanner’s Labor made a virtue of the end of the argy-bargy, but had little to replace it. Rather than being serious politics, what Tanner stood for represented its dead end. This is really what was recognised on 24 June 2010 and is now becoming excruciating as Gillard and Abbott take their parties onto the dance floor for an unwanted, and unloved, encore. The book shows that long after the voters (educated or otherwise) were already aware of it, this realisation has now finally reached the heart of the political class, even if they can’t bring themselves to say what caused it. As for the media, it can’t go beyond it and won’t be able to – not until the public gets up and finally changes the channel for good.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 28 October 2011.

Filed under Media analysis

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7 responses to “Book review: Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow

  1. kymbos on 28th October 2011 1:15 pm

    Do you genuinely think of the Hawke/Keating years as the period in which the back of serious politics was broken?

    Do you really think the working class voted against their own interests during this period?

    I (perhaps mistakenly) get the sense that you consider Labor of the 80s and 90s to have betrayed their social base, and thus the ‘hollowing out’. Should they not have introduced enterprise bargaining? Banking deregulation? Tariff reform? Would the working class be better off now if they hadn’t?

    Should Labor return to protectionism and nationalisation to regain their rightful place, representing a manufacturing workforce that no longer exists?

    The world has moved on from major political parties trying to represent organised labour – the ALP didn’t cause this, but are clearly struggling with how to deal with it (not unlike all major parties of the left).

  2. The Piping Shrike on 28th October 2011 4:08 pm

    On financial liberalisation I’m neither for or against, it happened around the world in the 1980s and in the UK average employee wages went up (although stagnated would be a better description in the US).

    But in Australia, under Labor’s social accord with the unions, real wages for the average Australia employee went down during its introduction. This was in spite of working hours going up, reversing what had been a century long decline. In addition, the cost of housing, the main expense of the average employee, went through the roof.

    Furthermore it was on top of that, as Keating boasted a couple of years ago, that union power had “its teeth pulled”. After that, of course, living standards increased (although housing was never be as affordable as it was when Hawke came in and working hours never returned to their pre-Hawke levels either). As far as the experience of the average employee went, they did better under Howard than they did when there was a union supported government under Hawke/Keating.

    So the issue is not liberalisation, but who paid for it to allow it to be introduced. In Australia, it was Labor’s own base. It was not a case that they voted against their own interest as such, there was no other viable choice.

    Whether Labor shouldn’t have done it or not is not really my interest, all I’m saying is that if you want to look at where the decline of Labor and the unions set in (and by implication the decline of political parties that opposed them) and the hollowing out of the political process, then what was going on when it began would seem a good place to start – rather than the media sociology mumbo jumbo that Tanner bangs on about in his book.

  3. Riccardo on 28th October 2011 8:44 pm

    TPS this is the Veuve Cliquot of your posts to date.

    Excellent stuff. It is a shame when the ‘thinking Left’ get done over by their own ‘internal contradictions’ (I assume this is what the Marxist phrase means).

    Hawke has since said he felt that Australia was heading down Argentina/Chile Road, and there wouldn’t be Norman Gunston on the steps of Old Parliament, but soldiers with guns. If he hadn’t prevailed on his own base to have given in on economic matters, perhaps the other side might have done it for him.

    His apologists have also noted the Accord was supposed to be tri-partite, and business was supposed to have conceded more than it did. Instead, it ran up the foreign debt with cheap foreign loans and currency speculation (as I’m sure Jack Lang told PJK would happen, when PJK sat at Lang’s feet and listened to the old class hatreds).

    I’m just back from Malaysia, where politics is a refreshing change from here – sodomy laws, having obedient wives and cronyism being the topics du jour.

  4. kymbos on 1st November 2011 11:00 am

    I find your response a little unsatisfying, PS. One of your central ideas is that of the ‘hollowing out’ – that Labor no longer represents a part of society and thus has no ‘social base’. You seem to imply this is something the Labor Party caused, and this piece elaborates a bit on how this happened.

    If I understand you correctly, you view the reforms of the Hawke/Keating years not as vital economic reforms that laid the bedrock of future economic growth and ultimately raised living standards for most Australians (including Labor’s traditional base).

    Instead, you view them as some sort of misjudged betrayal of Labor’s own base, that caused the ‘hollowing out’, that ‘broke the back of serious politics’. Your evidence of this betrayal is that living standards did not grow as quickly under Hawke/Keating as they did under Howard. This conters conventional wisdom, largely because it would be viewed by an economist as naive – Labor did the serious reforms, transforming a basket case economy, and the fruits of this were not immediate. Howard kept the ship steady, but introduced no serious reforms, and was in charge as the economic growth came to fruition.

    So my questions are – in what way did Labor’s reforms of the 80s and 90s ‘break the back of serious politics’? Would we be in a different Australia if the reforms had been done by the Libs? Is the predicament of Labor any different from those of parties of the Left around liberal democracies the world over?

    Thanks for your insights.

  5. Riccardo on 1st November 2011 4:04 pm

    The economic reforms started with Whitlam, people forget this. Tariffs were a vital component of the Australian Settlement. Also Whitlam loathed the unions, and they him, and in amongst all the other issues with Whitlam this is often forgotten.

    Tariff economies are production; not consumption economies. Production is encouraged and consumption discouraged. Whitlam took the side of consumers. Where the Right Wing should be but often aren’t.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 2nd November 2011 5:21 am

    Hi Kymbos, by serious politics I mean it in the way Tanner is using it. The basis of Australian politics had centred around organised labour having political representation through the Labor party, with the non-Labor parties organised to oppose it.

    The 1980s and 1990s could be considered as two parts: the opening up the financial markets under Hawke and the weakening of the unions under Keating.

    I’m not one of those that see the liberalisation of financial markets as “bad” (or “good”). In my view, it is a question of the bargaining position to get a better deal.

    Liberalisation was simply the way markets were heading, especially after the collapse of Bretton Woods, that was evident around the world and including in Australia, even under Fraser. The issue was how this was to be done, especially on how to contain wages and protect profitability when companies became exposed to greater competition. In the UK it was done by side-lining the unions, in Australia it was done by the opposite, bringing them into the top echelons of government to result in a bigger assault on living standards in the 1980s than happened in the UK under Thatcher. Draw what conclusion you like on how much help unions gave to Australian employees bargaining.

    Keating took it further in his time and turned on the unions by ending collective bargaining and bringing enterprise bargaining linked to productivity.

    I would say that both actions undermined both the rationale and appeal of Labor and the unions to their base and is behind the undermining of the basis on which politics (or ‘serious politics’ as Tanner calls it) was organised.

    This is not the first time of course that Labor’s base has come out worst for it from a Labor government or the unions have disappointed. I think we are seeing the end of a centre long political movement of which what happened in the Hawke/Keating period, was a step change along it. It is also happened around the world, but in Australia the involvement of the “social democrat” party is clearer and indeed they still even boast about it (in an indirect way).

  7. Riccardo on 9th November 2011 10:36 pm

    The other thing – have people noticed the Libs rehabilitating Keating (well Labor won’t do it!)

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