Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Lindsay Tanner's Pointless and Hypocritical Sideshow

Lindsay Tanner, former Finance Minister in the Rudd Government has long been regarded as an intelligent politician. At times he seemed like he was more suited to the halls of academia, rather than the cut and thrust of the parliamentary chamber. This reputation has been cemented since Tanner left politics at last year’s election and the release of his book Sideshow, which examines the ‘…symbiotic relationship between politics and the media’. That last quote comes not from Tanner’s book but the ‘Politics and the Media’ textbook I used when teaching a university course last year.

The trouble with Sideshow is it acts as Tanner’s post political exercise in intellectual masturbation. For a politician hailed for his mental dexterity as well as his political and policy expertise, Tanner too heavily relies upon pithy insights that are easily digestible. When the book attempts to offer deep insight, the book reads like a second rate literature review of communication theories and their impact upon political discourse. Far from being ‘…the greatest leader the Australian Labor Party ever had’ Tanner has made himself into the politics tutor Melbourne University never asked for.

The structure of the book is overly simplistic in its execution. For example Tanner brings up a vaguely general point about the ‘celebrity culture’ of modern politics. Then he uses far too many academic texts to back up his initial points, like a diligent, incompetent and overconfident mature aged student. Finally he uses well known examples to extrapolate the theory. This would be good, but all the examples are incredibly innocuous, lest they be damaging to his former colleagues. As a result the reader is left with elemental constructions disguised as prophetic analysis.  
It is no wonder that the book has received near universal acclaim from the media because Sideshow is Tanner’s hypocritical diatribe. He claims that the media offers no substantial political or policy insight without offering any himself. Former Rudd economic adviser Andrew Charlton states in The Monthly that Sideshow is 
…thoughtful, wide ranging and intellectually adventurous. It was like nothing I’d ever read from an Australian politician. It was one of those books you want to read with a pen and a highlighter, to catch and preserve the ideas that fly off every page.
It is in fact the opposite of this; intellectually impotent. Whilst highlighting many basic problems with politics and the media, Sideshow offers no alternatives or remedies to the many faults that Tanner sees. If Tanner was caught in a ‘sideshow’ during his time in politics, why didn’t he attempt to circumvent the many problems of the Rudd Government’s media management strategy? As Bernard Keane notes in Crikey:
Tanner, while not suggesting it’s the fault of anyone in particular, singles out the media and politicians, and to a lesser extent voters themselves, for blame. Absent, though, are the political parties – and especially Labor – which have provided an institutional framework for the dumbing down of politics. It’s impossible to look at the debacle of the NSW Government, and the travails of Federal Labor over the last 13 months, without seeing the dead hand of the party machine helping steer its parliamentary wing to destruction.
Only sparingly in the last chapter does Tanner undertake some analysis, but even those attempts are feeble: choosing instead to blame a weak constituency, rather than point the finger at systemic institutional rot. It is easier to blame the disengaged, instead of providing the voting public with alternatives to become increasingly involved in the political process. Sideshow was Tanner’s chance to be brave, bold and live up to his reputation as a reformer who was not afraid to tackle big issues for the sake of the public interest. Instead he comes at the reader with a weak message that is diluted and ineffectual. His critics might say the same about his political career too.

Tanner missed far too many points that should have been included. Where was the mention of the ‘presidentialisation’ of politics? How about the trend of political parties marginalising their grass roots base in order to appease the media narrative? What about the fickle tendency of parties to get rid of leaders, rather than policies because the media prefers it that way? There was none. Instead of stopping the ‘sideshow’ Tanner has merely added to it. As a consequence the public, the media, and politics at large are none the wiser. They should feel aggrieved because all Sideshow does is illustrate the unfulfilled potential of one of Australia’s most under utilised political minds.

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