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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Clever Tanner disturbs Labor's clean air

Lindsay Tanner was interviewed by the ABC's
Leigh Sales last night.
Lindsay Tanner has put the cat among the pigeons, it seems, with his PR round to promote a new book, Politics with Purpose, released yesterday. It's the second post-retirement critique of politics from Tanner, and follows last year's Sideshow, which slammed the personality-driven focus of discourse in the Australian public sphere, and which was equally critical of politicians and the media. So it's ironic that though noone apart from Fairfax's Michelle Grattan appears to have read the new book the author's appearances in the media have stirred up so much dust. The ABC's Leigh Sales last night took a hard line on the point of loyalty, in the wake of dismissive rejoinders from serving Labor ministers during the day. Tanner's sangfroid in the face of Sales' spirited onslaught was admirable, but she forced him to deny any intention to resuscitate the perennial question of whether the prime minister was right to overthrow Kevin Rudd. In the absence of much knowledge of what the book contains, Sales seems to have fallen back on the now-stale leadership question, but accusations of disloyalty are harder to reject.

Labor has clawed its way back from the point where another leadership change looked likely (knowing the Labor Party) six months ago, to a point now where, according to the latest Newspoll, it's sitting at 50-50 against the Coalition on a two-party-preferred basis. This is nothing short of miraculous considering the hefty legislative load pushed through Parliament by the canny Gillard and her ministers. And the party should be congratulated for suppressing any desire to succumb to the "NSW disease", and for leaving Gillard in place as leader. This strategy has clearly worked for Labor. In any case the reappearance of Tanner in the media at this point in time is purely accidental, based as it is on the publisher's schedule, and not on any desire by Tanner to diminish Labor's recent vigour. The issue of loyalty is of course relevant, but I think Sales was merely defaulting to the most routine of all the available options during her interview. More information is of course available, notably in Grattan's story yesterday, and I think it's probably worthwhile to look at what she wrote.

To say that Labor has outsourced its ideas, that it stands for nothing, and that its politicians seek only reelection may merely be a neat way of backhandedly congratulating the Greens for achieving electoral and legislative goals that seemed remote for them even five years ago. The Greens have been gnawing away at Labor's left flank while changing demographics mean that Labor has had to expand policy-wise to the right. The rise of the Greens is not the only reason Labor has had to grow at the expense of the Liberal Party, therefore. Even 15 years ago the community in Australia had a different shape than it has now, and as unionisation shrinks along with growth in the relative importance of the services sector, as manufacturing shifts to countries that offer a lower cost base for corporations, and as new industries emerge that demand new skills from employees, it would be silly to expect Labor to remain immobile.

It's also silly to reminisce fondly on ye olde ancient Labor as somehow more sui-generis than Labor today. Under Hawke and Keating the shift toward the right was already obvious, and policies implemented in those days reflected the reality that Australia had changed and that Labor's traditional working-class identity was up for review. It's hard to see how either of those prime ministers can be "favourably" compared to Rudd or Gillard if we are honest about what kind of changes they made, to Australia's economic structure especially. New Labour of the Tony Blair kind had run its course in Australia by 1997 when Blair first got elected, and if Tanner thinks that things were more consistent with traditional Labor values under those two he must stand accused of viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses.

As for "outsourcing" policy-making, there is a good reason for broader involvement by the Australian community in setting political priorities for Labor. It's the same in science. No longer do scientists win Nobel Prizes on their own, it's usually a team of two or three and often they're even situated on different continents. Compared with 15 years ago the world has become more complex, and so finding solutions to domestic Australian problems cannot be achieved in the same way, now, as it was in the days of Hawke or Keating. Ideas should furthermore come from anywhere they are made if they're good. Community needs might be expressed more faithfully within reports fashioned by any of the thousands of nameless people who handle information deriving from recent surveys in any of the areas that are apt to be touched by government influence, such as healthcare, housing, education, immigration, landcare, manufacturing, agriculture, primary resources - the list can go on indefinitely. Think tanks, privately-funded institutes, endowed units within universities, NGOs - all of these entities are constantly active handling information that can be better, more accurate, and more recent than information held within the Labor Party. It would be foolish for any political party to ignore this vast wealth of knowledge.

Until Tanner's book gets read more widely that's about all I can say on this question, and it's really only a question because Tanner is such a smart guy, and because the community takes notice when he enters the public arena. The fuss the book has stirred up is testament to Tanner's reputation as a thoughtful and articulate participant in Australia's public sphere. It's unlikely, as he told Sales, that this little blip will materially alter Labor's political fortunes.

A final word on loyalty. It is true that some Labor supporters might think that renewal is important for Labor, but more broadly in the community people will be looking for politicians who talk about issues that are important for them. Loyalty is fine for some, but principles will continue to be far more important for people in the electorate. Labor might feel that it has lost possession of the high ground to the other crowd but I think that we all should be aware that as the world changes shape, as genres blur, as new industries emerge, and as people leave school and enter the workforce, the precise location of the high ground may turn out to be somewhere other than where you thought it was yesterday. We live in interesting times, as that wise Chinese once said.

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