The Labor Sideshow

Lindsay Tanner, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy (Scribe, 2011), 240 pages, $32.95.

Shortly after the ALP’s resounding victory in the 2007 federal election, psychologist-activist Steve Biddulph wrote a triumphalist missive for the Sydney Morning Herald assuring us that “Rudd and Gillard are not in power for power’s sake” and that together they would make Australia “a better place for the people in it”. Moreover, the irresistible charm of “Kevin and Julia, as Australia already calls them”, might actually “herald the end of the Liberal Party itself”. According to Biddulph’s scenario, by 2014 federal politics would be a battle between Labor and the Greens, conservative politics having “withered away”. Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy is Lindsay Tanner’s take on why the fairytale went wrong.

For Tanner, the explanation of why Prime Minister Rudd failed to lead us to the Light on the Hill begins with the dismal state of political discourse in Australia. Politics has come to be characterised by shallowness and fraudulence that know no shame. Media operators and their hirelings are primarily to blame for this circus, although politicians on both sides have allowed themselves to be co-opted by a spectacle that is even more frivolous with the advent of the non-stop media cycle. Political reporting, argues Tanner, is now marked by “a deep aversion to complexity” coupled with “an ever-intensifying emphasis on celebrity”. The sideshow syndrome ensures that instead of undertaking important policy deliberation through serious public discussion, Australia’s political class engages in “empty posturing about trivial matters”. Real political debate still occurs but in secret, away from the inquisitive—or not so inquisitive—eyes of the public. As a consequence, Labor’s former Minister for Finance and Deregulation now holds grave fears for the “integrity of our democratic process” and the “well-being” of the nation.

Sideshow is, on the surface at least, even-handed in its portrayal of politicians succumbing to the wiles of the media. Admittedly, doing otherwise might have been a stretch given that Kevin Rudd has no peer as the prince of media guile and gall. Rudd’s emergence into the sunlit uplands of public recognition was closely connected with the “lighter parts of commercial media”, in the form of a regular guest spot on Seven Network’s breakfast show Sunrise. Tanner is similarly scornful of the long-term quest by Julia Gillard, on entering parliament, to establish a “personal brand” and so transcend that most dreaded of conditions—anonymity:

Some might think it strange that, for a number of years, Julia has dyed her hair red. In fact, it’s perfectly sensible: it makes her more noticeable. When an ordinary voter makes disparaging references to the “ranga”, that is a good thing. She has registered as an individual personality in the sideshow. The voter knows she exists.

Tanner, to be fair, divulges some of his own (lame) adventures in media-land banality, including a brush with The Footy Show. Even so, all these cases of Labor (and Liberal) complicity and duplicity operate in the context of a rapacious media that takes no prisoners: “Glorious irrelevance awaits any politician brave enough to push back against the rules of the political sideshow.”

For the most part Tanner refrains from characterising the mainstream media as partisan. He notes, for instance, that on important issues the editorial in one Murdoch newspaper is likely to be at variance with the viewpoint expressed in a different Murdoch paper. Sideshow eschews Bob Brown-like talk of the “hate media”. In fact, the only political bias that appears to stick in Tanner’s craw is Melbourne’s Age: “In recent years, The Age’s content has become slavishly pro-Green, sometimes running articles about the party that are almost advertisements for it.” As a rule, though, the problem with today’s media is not so much political bias as “the bias in favour of the trivial, the spectacular, and the personal”.                       

The Greens, contends Tanner, have been an unanticipated beneficiary of the sideshow syndrome. While Rudd, Gillard and Abbott danced to the tune of the music man, and in doing so “dragged discourse down almost to childish levels”, the Greens benefited from a revolt by “educated voters” against the juvenile nature of the 2010 federal election:

I suspect that the increase in the Greens’ vote has been driven by voter anger at being treated like children as it has by growing support for Greens’ policies and perspectives. In the eyes of many of these voters, the Greens are the only party that treats them like adults.

Yet Tanner is no friend of the Greens, something that was evident even before they won his old seat of Melbourne at the last election. In a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2010, Tanner derided the Greens as a political entity that was “no less cynical or manipulative” than Labor or the Liberals and yet passed itself off as entirely “idealistic”. The Greens have had the luxury of operating without the encumbrance of Labor’s “natural supporters”: that is, working-class folk with illiberal attitudes towards “gay marriage, forests and civil liberties”. For Tanner, the superiority of the ALP over the Greens seems not to be ideological per se but a matter of expediency. Thanks, presumably, to the traditionalist (or reactionary) beliefs held by many of its supporters, Labor does not “yell the loudest in favour of progressive outcomes”. Nevertheless, Labor is the party that has a record of achieving progressive reforms through the years, if invariably at a “piecemeal and gradual” pace. 

While the Rudd–Gillard administrations cannot claim to have been on the receiving end of a concerted anti-Labor media campaign, the ALP nevertheless turns out, according to Tanner, to be the real victim of the sideshow syndrome. The media’s emphasis on “the trivial, the spectacular, and the personal” distracts the population from societal problems—for instance, the plight of “the downtrodden”—that exist for the ALP to cure (or vice versa, of course). The dumbing down of democracy acts “incidentally” as a “barrier to progressive change” and, therefore, represents an “innately conservative” force in society. In short, matters of “serious substance” are the business of progressive politics while “trivia” provides the natural milieu for conservatism and, we must assume, the Liberal Party. 

For all his talk of the sideshow syndrome, Tanner suffers from an intellectual disorder of his own—evangelism of the Left. An evangelist of the Left knows that every reasonable person in the country would be politically progressive if only they were in full possession of the facts and not limited by bigotry, greed or ignorance. Thus, a proportion of Australia’s working class are liable to vote for the Liberal Party but only because they are under-educated, leaving them vulnerable to various forms of intolerance and scare campaigns. In this vein, Sideshow contains no suggestion that conservative politicians serve any purpose other than as foils for progressive politics. Contemporary politics, as Julia Gillard reminded us at the 2011 Victorian ALP Conference, is about right versus wrong rather than Right versus Left.     

Sideshow’s defence of the ABC is a perfect illustration of Tanner’s prejudices at work. To corroborate his sideshow hypothesis, Tanner takes a few cursory swipes at the ABC, and yet for the most part he endorses it as an exemplary vehicle for serious political debate: “It has been influenced by the sideshow syndrome to some degree, but mostly at the margins.” Tanner is honest enough to admit that on occasions the ABC has treated him with kid gloves but in each instance he offers a disingenuous explanation. When it comes to the subject of the ABC’s political partisanship, Tanner is wholly dismissive:

Right-wing commentators who criticise the ABC’s alleged left-wing bias completely miss the point. The ABC is biased in favour of serious subjects, which by definition tend to attract more attention from educated, progressive audiences.

Not for a second does Tanner admit that over the years the ABC has been an unapologetic apologist for the ALP (and the Greens), and that Kerry O’Brien’s slip-up on election night 2007—“Bennelong has had a large swing to the ABC”—startled viewers because it so embarrassingly acknowledged the truth. Tanner’s obtuseness about the ABC is telling. Progressives, in Tanner’s judgment, are educated and good, and the ALP just happens to be progressive. No cause, then, for “sectarian conservatives” to find fault with the ABC.

To equate “educated” with “politically progressive” and to assume that the open-minded amongst us invariably align themselves with progressive causes is, of course, Tanner’s prerogative. After all, for a lengthy period of time the man was a leading light in the ALP. Still, operating from such a standpoint undercuts his aspiration to be treated as something more than a Labor polemicist, which Sideshow with its blizzard of quotations and pretence to impartiality cries out for us to do. Frankly, holding a poor opinion of Julia Gillard does not automatically elevate an ex-Labor minister to the status of dispassionate social commentator, even if he is now vice-chancellor’s fellow and adjunct professor at Victoria University.                   

Consider, for example, the subject of anthropogenic climate change. Tanner acknowledges that there have been “fluctuations in Labor’s position”, but the only narrative he recognises in Tony Abbott’s galvanising leadership of the Liberal Party is the two-dimensional version touted by Labor spin masters and promoted by outraged climate alarmists: “The fact that, under Tony Abbott, the Liberals appear to have rejected climate-change science and wish to use the issue solely as a source of scare campaigns on the cost of living simply magnifies the anger.” Tanner does everything but brand Abbott a “denialist” in the pay of big oil and mining interests. Again, Tanner is at liberty to dismiss out of hand the growing number of Australians who no longer believe “the science is settled”. Tanner can downplay Julia Gillard’s pre-election deception of the Australian people—“There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”—by relegating her mistruth to the status of a simple deviation in Labor’s stance, but it does nothing for his credentials as an impartial pundit.

In May this year Chris Kenny wrote an amusing article in the Australian disdaining Tanner’s fixation with the media. Kenny accurately pointed out that John Howard “assiduously spoke through and around” his “enduring enemies”—the Fairfax press, the ABC and the Canberra press gallery to name but three—by pitching his “messages to voters”. The Rudd government, on the other hand, proved a “triumph of spin over substance” and in the end the general public wised up to the fact that apart from converting with alacrity Howard’s $20 billion surplus into a $57 billion deficit the 2007–10 administration had “nothing to say”, bereft as it was of “a serious reform, a policy, an agenda” worth conveying to the Australian people. Kenny’s advice to the current Gillard administration was to “hoist a sail” instead of drifting in the “unpredictable and treacherous” waters of political disputation. The problem, however, is not that Labor has no message but that it has two contradictory ones, since it is the keeper of two (mostly discrete) constituencies. That disconnect goes a long way to explaining why the ALP, along with New Labour in the UK, has been so obsessed with public relations.                                   

The wiliness of Labor is not hard to prove. Before the 2010 federal election, for instance, Senator Penny Wong, who is openly gay, stated that she agreed with Labor’s anti-same-sex-marriage policy, because “there was a cultural, religious and historical view of marriage being between a man and a woman”. So incensed was Bob Brown, also openly gay, that in the July 26, 2010, edition of the Sydney Morning Herald he declared himself “horrified” at Senator Wong’s comments. Come November 2010, three months after the election, and it was a very different story at the South Australian Labor Conference. Now Wong was a passionate supporter of same-sex marriage; what is more, she took the opportunity at this public meeting to castigate Bob Brown, who sought radical social transformation by unsophisticatedly “shouting about it”. Informatively, Wong echoed Tanner’s claim back in March 2010 that the ALP was superior to the Greens because it could more effectively deliver a leftist agenda.

When Lindsay Tanner characterises the 2010 federal election in Sideshow as infantile we need to keep in mind that the ALP hoodwinked the Australian public on almost every issue being contested. Along with Wong’s duplicity on same-sex marriage, there were the contentious topics of border control, Big Australia, a mining excise and, of course, our old friend the carbon dioxide emissions tax. In each case, no voter—whatever his or her political persuasion—could be certain where the Gillard Labor government stood. The ALP spun like a wooden top. No wonder Julia Gillard took time out from her busy campaign to pose for Women’s Weekly. Tanner can grouse all he likes about the machinations of the media, but our newspaper and television barons have nothing on the cunning that characterises modern-day Labor. Ben Chifley would be appalled.

We can, in retrospect, pin the spin on Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election campaign. Tanner, in Sideshow, cites a pundit’s depiction of Rudd’s persona while prime minister as “quiz show host”. From Tanner’s standpoint Kevin 07 never had any choice in the matter, and yet for the previous three years John Howard had declined the overtures of Rove McManus, our (onetime) maestro of jokey television entertainment, which commenced with the 2004 “Prime Minister, Please Call Rove” campaign. Kevin Rudd proved not so reticent, appearing three times on the show. Various conservative pundits, including of all people Barry Humphries, have scoffed at the idea that an insubstantial character such as Rudd could be anything other than a poseur, and yet the Member for Griffith’s 1998 inaugural speech to parliament clearly marked him out as an ideologue of sorts: “For nearly a decade now it has become fashionable to accept the death of ideology, the triumph of neoclassical economics, the politics of convergence and the rise of managerialism … I disagree, and I disagree fundamentally.”

That voice is essentially the same one to be found eleven years later in Prime Minister Rudd’s lengthy essay in the Monthly’s February 2009 edition:

The global financial crisis … is a crisis which is at once institutional, intellectual and ideological. It has called into question the prevailing neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years—the orthodoxy that has underpinned the national and global regulatory frameworks that have so spectacularly failed to prevent the economic mayhem which has now been visited upon us. Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself …           

The point, here, is not whether China’s ravenous appetite for Australia’s mineral resources or Rudd’s 2008-09 “cash splash” program provides the better explanation for why Australia avoided the worst effects of the GFC. Kevin Rudd, at heart a radical social democrat with a proclivity for redistributing wealth, went to the 2007 election in the borrowed robes of John Howard. Rudd’s “me-too-ism” on the topic of fiscal responsibility bordered on the farcical, but in the end proved good enough to calm enough uneasy punters and get Labor over the line. On the virtual eve of the federal election, we might recall, Rudd declined an invitation to answer serious questions on the ABC’s Insiders in order to prepare for his first appearance on Rove.          

There is an argument that the factional demarcation lines in the modern-day ALP are more to do with tribal allegiances than anything as grand as ideological differences. The real divide in the party echoes the contradictory nature of its two main constituencies, traditionalists and progressives. Some Labor stalwarts, including Martin Ferguson, have talked about the radical fervour of the Greens possessing the potential to “undermine and cost jobs”, spurring Bob Brown to hit back with the accusation that Labor’s Minister for Resources and Energy was an “advocate of polluting” and “would not be out of place in the Coalition party room”. The dilemma for the ALP is that if it adopts radical policies the party might well face political oblivion, and yet not doing so runs certain risks as well. Some analysts believe that unless the ALP embraces the Greens in the Senate and becomes more active on the AGW front the party itself will become an empty shell, with young idealistic activists continuing to abandon it for the Greens.        

In many ways the expression “crash through or crash” is more applicable to contemporary Labor than it was to Whitlam’s rule. Certainly, craftily constructed carbon dioxide taxes offer the opportunity for the Labor Party to shore up its AGW credentials and at the same time secure a new source of revenue to placate Labor’s other constituency. In its “Say Yes” television campaign, Cate Blanchett exhorts the general public to get behind Julia Gillard’s carbon dioxide tax so that finally Australia can begin “doing something about climate change”. Importantly, in the same promotion the actor Michael Caton performs his benchmark impersonation of an ordinary working Australian, his eyes lighting up at the line, “Make the big companies pay.” Furthermore, the “Say Yes” commercial makes the claim that any future carbon dioxide tax will “help people struggling with bills”. The whole advertising venture, not to mention the proposed tax itself, constitutes a shameless propaganda-style attempt to solve Labor’s own internal incoherency by squaring the circle. It turns out that rather than being the victim of the so-called sideshow syndrome, the ALP is the sideshow.                                

Kevin Rudd experienced his “crash through or crash” moment when he almost managed to have his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme passed in the Senate. On the evening of Tuesday, November 24, 2009, the ABC ran the following announcement over the top of its late-night movie, Lady Windermere’s Fan, not once but twelve times: “Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull has claimed victory in gaining party-room support for the Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme.” So much fanfare for an Australian political occurrence had not been seen since Prime Minister Holt disappeared off Cheviot Beach in 1967. Only at the eleventh hour did the Liberal Party avert catastrophe by electing Tony Abbott its leader. As is so often the case at such propitious moments in history, Abbott won the ballot by a single vote.

From that time onwards the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd was doomed. The little guy who had towered above the political fray since replacing Kim Beazley as leader of the Labor Party three years before had toppled off his stilts. The ALP, including Lindsay Tanner, had demanded the Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition acquiesce to their CPRS legislation or be forced to an early election. When Kevin Rudd abruptly ditched the double dissolution threat his days were numbered. The pressure began to tell on Rudd; he snapped at Kerry O’Brien for merely inquiring about the prospects of a carbon dioxide tax, berating him for “living in 7.30 Reportland”. And then the one remaining ray of hope for a new cash cow, the Resource Super Profits Tax, fell over. On the night of June 22, 2010, sometime around midnight, Labor’s top apparatchiks quietly showed Kevin 07 the door.

This version of Rudd’s demise finds no airing in Lindsay Tanner’s opus. You might have already guessed his rationalisation: “The removal of Kevin Rudd as prime minister had powerful echoes of the sideshow syndrome.” Tanner provides us with a new sub-category, the “sudden-death context”, to make his case. However, arguing that media speculation about Rudd’s popularity (both in the party room and amongst the general public) brought him undone muddles cause with consequence in the most outrageous fashion. This is the same kind of sleight of hand Tanner himself rails against throughout Sideshow.                                

There are those in Labor, including some with genuine influence, who believe the ALP, the party of salt-of-the-earth Ben Chifley, can be rescued from the pretentious “dregs of the middle class” that have hijacked it. They delude themselves. Political correctness has insinuated itself into the organisation in much the same way as the cane toad now pervades northern Australia. The best-case scenario might be that Labor keeps selling itself to the public as the two-headed Janus, one head looking to the Right and the other to the Left, protecting Australia from political extremism by always “getting the balance right” (as Kevin Rudd would say). A more pessimistic view might envisage the ALP as the hefty insect-like creature in Kafka’s Metamorphosis that eventually realises it serves no function besides wasting the Samsa family’s time and threatening their precious resources. In either case, the contradictions that define modern-day Labor necessitate that it ceaselessly work the media, lest traditionalist and progressive voter alike see it for what it is or, more accurately, for what it is not.           

Like so many ALP apologists before him, Tanner attempts to explain the public’s disenchantment with a Labor government by blaming the media. Mercifully, Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy spares us the usual tale of woe about “the evil machinations of sinister proprietors”, and yet the sideshow theory is only marginally more plausible. With the Greens using up so much oxygen on the progressive side of politics and the Coalition making an increasingly credible pitch for Labor’s “natural supporters”, is there a hint of an existential threat about the ALP’s current disfavour? The hubris Steve Biddulph exhibited in 2007 should be reason enough to respond in the negative. These are turbulent times for our main political parties, and it is a pity Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow does not even begin to convey the substance of the furore.        


Daryl McCann discussed Civilization by Niall Ferguson in the June issue.


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