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Roll up for the political circus

14 May 2011 1,057 views No Comment

HAVING held the seat of Melbourne for the ALP since 1993, the minister for finance, Lindsay Tanner, retired from parliamentary politics at the 2010 federal election. Since then, Tanner, a politician of considerable talent and integrity, has given much thought to the sorry state of politics in Australia.

In its own way, Sideshow is as revealing as Tony Abbott’s important 2009 book Battlelines, which was also part memoir, part analysis and part impassioned critique. Tanner argues that the degradation of civic culture and the dumbing down of democracy is increasingly depoliticising society and narrowing active engagement in politics to an “unrepresentative elite”. Rather than meaningfully participating in public debate, citizens, he claims, are often reduced to the role of apathetic spectators. Informed media coverage and genuine debate are arguably in a state of serious decline, while the electoral process itself is devalued. In this analysis, Tanner is supported by Hugh Mackay, who last year pointed to three key problems: “leaders as brands; endless repetition of slogans; craven dependence on the dreaded focus groups.”

In Sideshow, Tanner argues that the democratic process is “undermined by the dominance of cynical apparatchiks who are skilled at manipulating the levers of political power but believe in little other than their own career advancement”. Highlighting the decline of the centrality of politics to public life, he explains that “the sideshow syndrome … punishes idealists and activists, and elevates cynical machine-politics to paramount importance”. As he explains, it fosters politics without values and beliefs. To give one salient example, many Australians aren’t sure what the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, believes or stands for – or indeed if she stands for anything.

These days, political debate is increasingly “composed of empty posturing about trivial matters”. Similarly, with the media and politicians often symbiotically blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, “the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish substance from noise and distortion” is shrinking fast. Halfway through the lacklustre 2010 federal election campaign, with voters swamped by slogans, The Australian’s editorialist damned the “triumph of the political class over the national interest”, claiming that the campaign reflected “the realm of virtual politics, where the message becomes an end in itself”. Not everyone was fooled, however: the informal vote rose by almost two percentage points – to 5.65 per cent.

Tanner is surely correct in describing Gillard’s main slogan of “Moving forward” as “a cliche from corporate-speak that would have irritated anyone who had spent much time with second-tier business executives, who tend to use it to great excess”. Hence for most of us, “spin” has come to mean some form of evasion and calculated deceit. As the balance, especially on TV, between information and entertainment has shifted in favour of the latter, the way that politics is covered by the media has altered significantly. In this sense, the overabundance of spin is a mere symptom of this deleterious change

Tanner is honest enough to reveal that, in his 18-year parliamentary career, he was sometimes guilty of aiding the spin doctors and trivialising the relations between politics and the media. Towards the end of Sideshow, a pessimistic Tanner lets his guard slip further, wondering whether the time has come, or may soon come, for thinkers, including himself, to advocate the abolition of compulsory voting.

Review by Ross Fitzgerald Politics SIDESHOW by Lindsay Tanner. Scribe, 232pp, $32.95
The Sydney Morning Herald 14 May, 2011. Spectrum – Books. page 35.