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Tanner on the dumbing down of democracy. -

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Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner says the media has driven politicians away from serious
debate and towards spin and gimics.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES: The former finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, was one of the so called "Gang of four"
who ran the Rudd Government. He quit at the last election, citing family reasons. Caucus minutes
leaked last year claim that he was opposed to Labor's dumping of the emissions trading scheme.

Now Mr Tanner has written a book called 'Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy'.

Lindsay Tanner, in your new book you write that Australia and its people deserve much better than
the carefully scripted play acting that now dominates our nation's politics. What do you mean?

LINDSAY TANNER, FORMER FINANCE MINISTER: We got to a situation where spin, robotic scripting, all
of the things that you've heard lots of complaints about over the past few years I think have
seriously distorted the picture of politics even more distorting than usual, that is conveyed
through the media. I've tried in this book Sideshow to ask why is this happening. The answer is
politicians are reacting to how the media portrays them. They're getting more and more defensive
because of "gotcha journalism" and more and more are drifting into a world of flimflam and stunts
and gimmicks, announcables and spin, both to protect themselves and also to stay in the media. So
you get a toxic interaction between politicians and the media that is driving the Australian
political process further and further away from issues, from the national interest, from serious
political debate.

LEIGH SALES: But that casts politicians in a pretty passive position.

LINDSAY TANNER: Look, they're not entirely passive, that's true, and certainly responsibility for
these problems is, I think, ultimately shared between politicians, media and the people who vote
for them and who watch and read and listen to the media, the whole community. It is possible that a
big political dividend will come to somebody who decides to try to break out of these shackles, but
there are endless examples of where distortion, trivialising, misrepresenting by the media sends
signals to politicians about what they'll get punished for and what they'll get rewarded for.

LEIGH SALES: It's hard to not trivialise or mock something like moving Australia forward, that the
slogan your party took to the last election.

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, true, and I agrees with you, but you have to ask yourself where did that slogan
come from, and it came from a context where all of the rewards for politicians are in blanding
things to a point where they are meaningless, in avoiding offending anybody and trying to look like
they're doing something without actually seriously tackling problems.

LEIGH SALES: Even if I take everything that you're saying at face value that the media is
sensationalising things, trivialising things, politicians are reacting to that, could you really
imagine Bob Hawke, Paul Keating or John Howard rolling over and saying that's the environment we
live in, we'd better not to do serious reform?

LINDSAY TANNER: That's an interesting question. It takes you to the wider context in the community.
20 years of no serious economic downturns, I think the other factor apart from the national
complacency and if it ain't broke don't fix it mentality that I think is rampant at the moment, the
media has changed, the leeway that political leaders have to do tough serious things has diminished
substantially, the extent to which the media goes looking for aggrieved people and magnifying and
distorting their complaints out of all proportion has increased. The degree of serious analysis and
coverage of issues and major proposals has diminished, and the desire to trap politicians, to
demand that they guarantee that no worker will be worse off or that nobody will pay an extra cent,
all of these kinds of things, put politicians into a corner in ways that didn't happen to anywhere
near the same extent, for example, in the 1980s. So you've got this vicious circle of politicians
being more and more backed into this bland, don't do anything, don't say anything and just manage
things for tomorrow kind of corner.

LEIGH SALES: Do they just lack guts to do it?

LINDSAY TANNER: I think that's really a matter of opinion. I don't necessarily think that's the
case. It's interesting to speculate how somebody like Paul Keating, with a sort of crash through,
I'm going to make you listen and make you agree with my argument kind of style would have prospered
or not prospered in the current political environment and media environment. I think he would have
found it much, much more difficult because of just the intense focus on entertainment, on trivia,
on trapping politicians, on broadcasting people comparing people with Colonel Gaddafi and all this
sort of stuff, on big debates about whether Julia Gillard cried or didn't cry after the Queensland
floods, as if that matters to anything. I think that very different media context would have made
life a lot more difficult for people who were strong reformers in their day. I don't know for sure,
but I think there is a different context.

LEIGH SALES: You had a very low profile during the past election campaign. In the context of what
you're saying, what did you make of that campaign on both sides of politics?

LINDSAY TANNER: To me the great lesson of the campaign was in the big surge in the Green vote.
There wasn't a surge in the Liberal vote. In fact, the Liberal vote picked up only 1.5 per cent, or
something like that. The Greens added four per cent. In my view, that wasn't predominantly a bunch
of people attracted to the Greens' policies or necessarily supporting them playing a bigger role in
the political system. I think that was basically educated, politically aware voters who are mostly
Labor voters and maybe mildly sympathetic to the Greens saying we don't like being talked to like
children, and the major parties more and more, in my view, largely because of the way the media
portrays politics, are talking to the community as if they were eight year olds. The Greens may be
whacky, but they're never going to be the Government and at least they talk about serious stuff.

LEIGH SALES: Were you behind the scenes making that point to your own party?

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, internally in discussions, yes, I would always try to put the focus on the
merits of the issue and to try to at least keep all of the focus groups, spin, presentation, look
like you're doing something, announceables nonsense at arm's length, accepting it's a reality that
will always be part of the political landscape, but at times I felt overwhelmed. I sometimes felt
like I was talking a foreign language.

LEIGH SALES: Within your own party?

LINDSAY TANNER: Yes, within the realms of the Government. It was almost as if I'd come full circle.
I started out in politics as a teenager in student politics, that's where I ended up. That's not
the fault of anybody, it's not the fault of individual media outlets, individual politicians, it is
just where the game is drifting.

LEIGH SALES: To try to give an example of what you talk about in terms of the superficiality
overriding policy, I want to talk about one particular policy area around climate change. We know
that Labor dumped the ETS when polling got a little bit rough. Was that the right decision in a
policy sense for our nation?

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, look, I'm not going to enter into a commentary about wider contemporary
politics and whether things have been done right or wrong.

LEIGH SALES: But this is actually a very important policy issue that goes to the very heart of the
sorts of issues that you're raising.

LINDSAY TANNER: You can't cast judgment on these things when they're part unfolding. The story is
yet to be completed, and so we do not know yet what the final outcome will be of this big public
debate. It is the most complicated and challenging public policy issue that I've ever seen, so
never underestimate the degree of difficulty here.

LEIGH SALES: Is it accurate that you opposed dumping the ETS?

LINDSAY TANNER: Look, there's been a lot of stuff on the public record about what occurred in that
process. All I'm going to say is that I have no dispute with anything that's on the public record
about that, but I'm not going to add to that public record.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the carbon tax is good policy?

LINDSAY TANNER: I'm not going to comment on that. I'm now a private citizen. I've put out a book
that talks about a particular issue. I'm certainly going to comment on that. But I'm not going to
comment on contemporary issues of the day. I'm no longer an elected person, I'm not a Labor Party
spokesperson.

LEIGH SALES: You were an integral player in pretty momentous political events, some of the most
momentous we've seen in recent decades. Those events do help inform things happening still today.
The public wants to understand what's going on. Do you not think it's fair enough that you should
answer some questions about some of these issues?

LINDSAY TANNER: No, I think it's entirely a matter for me as to what I wish to talk about or don't
wish to talk about. I'm not a kiss and tell kind of guy. As far as I'm concerned, the issues that
we dealt with and some of the internal discussions, they will stay internal and in part I'd have to
say because I'm not confident that anything that I said would be accurately and fairly portrayed in
the media. It would be on your program, but where it would end up after that, who knows.

LEIGH SALES: Let me just ask you on the record because I think viewers would want me to ask you,
regardless of whether you wanted to answer it or not, do you think the Labor Party made the right
decision in dumping Kevin Rudd and replacing him...

LINDSAY TANNER: Again I'm not going to respond to that. I think the view that I took at the time as
a member of Caucus was in the public domain and it was accurately reported, but I'm not going to
engage in that discussion or any kind of retrospective on that, and my private views will remain my
private views.

LEIGH SALES: Lindsay Tanner, thank you very much for joining us.

LINDSAY TANNER: Thanks very much, Leigh.