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Tanner's Sideshow: what is the real cause?

By Klaas Woldring - posted Friday, 13 January 2012

Lindsay Tanner, former Minister of Finance and Deregulation in the Rudd Government, and MP for the seat of Melbourne from 1993 to 2010, has written an interesting book deploring the "dumbing down of democracy" by the media.

Tanner writes, "media-think is taking over politics" (p. 3). The creation of appearances has become more important than achievement, resulting in deceptions, spin and concentration on trivia. The public dislikes this and has turned away from the political debate as boring, not genuine and opportunistic.

In part this may well the result of the fact that many journalists have become politicians. He mentioned several examples, most are well known. Tanner left parliament (in 2010) because he became disenchanted with the "descent of our public life into the artificial media world of virtual reality". For Tanner politics is a serious business that is less and less treated as such by the media. That is the tenor of this well researched book. Various aspects of this overriding theme are dealt with exclusive reference to changes in media behaviour. The author draws on a huge number of personal experiences that fill the 232 pages of this timely text published recently by Scribe Publications.


Tanner complains about the "deliberate distortions" politicians frequently have to contend with (p. 24); the "junk" opinion polls "often of little significance"; and the aggressive style journalism intent on manufacturing controversy and scandal at the expense of serious policy debate (p. 39). Reporting politics as a sporting contest reached "absurd levels in the federal 2010) election (p. 76). Pressure to dumb down to the lowest common denominator is relentless and affects all other media adversely (p. 83). The activities of the shock jocks, such as John Laws and Alan Jones, pretending to be journalists but in fact paid entertainers and agents of other interests, stimulate the media frenzy. While Tanner does not reject all commercial media, he values some commercial radio reporters, the toxic character of some commercial commentators has had a negative effect on all politicians and other media as well – more so than ever before. The result has been recourse to spin, evasive answers in interviews, etc. according the Tanner (p. 93).

The reliance on Focus groups for policy making has become excessive and, generally, the application of marketing techniques is frequently seen as undesirable manipulation to be avoided in politics, Tanner suggests. (pp. 103/104). A special section is devoted to the growing dominance of campaigning and interviewing on TV. The medium often turns politics into a sideshow even more and faster than the print media (p. 157/8). Further criticism is targeted on the excessive media attention given to so called "celebrities".

Various statements by Tanner suggest that somehow nobody is to blame. The decline has just happened. The inference is that the politicians are unable to stand up to the onslaught of media power. But why exactly are the politicians too weak to combat this trend? That is the real question Tanner even fails to ask.

Nowhere does Tanner question the quality of the Australian political system itself, in particular the adversarial culture, the direct outcome of the electoral laws of 1918 and 1924 and Westminster practices. These laws are grossly biased in favour of the major parties. Over time these major parties have actually become look-alikes that most Australians have lost interest in. The adversarial mode of debate in parliaments opens the Pandora Box for the media. Most recently it has created Dr. NO Abbott playing the Opposition's leader's role as required. The political system and parliament itself is the ultimate source of controversy, exaggeration and combat for the media, day after day. Why do we have a single-member district electoral system that forces elections to become sideshows in a small number of marginal seats creating opportune dramas for the media? Alternatives exist but the major parties don't want that. They would lose seats to newcomers, create diversity, allow new ideas to emerge. We do not have to continue with an adversarial culture in Australia. It is costing us dearly. Have a look here.

Tanner does acknowledge the redeeming positive role of social media and organisations like GetUp. He also praises Blogs like The Conversation and the ABC for providing greater quality political programs than commercial stations do. However, here too he fails to point out that most of these more serious social media outlets also consistently fail to question the political system itself. Reformers will need to reach the over 70% of voters who are ignorant, disinterested in political issues or plainly disgusted by the sideshow (p. 176). The ABC's Q and A program, also primarily aiming at entertaining rather than informing or questioning the system, is frequently dominated by politicians of opposite sides who soon develop a dominant adversarial dialogue as they behave in parliament.

Tanner finally admits that he is now unhappy with compulsory voting because it forces the 70% to the polls and their preferences then need to be the principal targets of campaigners. But why does he rejectvoluntary voting while it makes perfect sense? Who in his deeply conservative ALP is actually thinking about system change that would give Australia a new political culture? The media will continue to treat them as a sideshow if they don't.

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This is a review of Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, Lindsay Tanner. (Scribe, 2011).

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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