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Dumbing Down Democracy: Tanner and Megalogenis

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“The two key rules that now govern the practice of Australian politics are: (1) look like you’re doing something; and (2) don’t offend anyone who matters.”

In 2010, one of the Wheeler Centre’s most popular events saw former ALP federal minister Lindsay Tanner interview senior political journalist George Megalogenis about his Quarterly Essay. Tanner put Megalogenis under the spotlight, questioning his analysis of the failures of leadership in Australian politics.

In 2011, the tables are turned. The former politician and the respected journalist return to duke it out again, this time focusing on Tanner’s new book Sideshow, part memoir, part analysis, and part critique of the media. In his first book since leaving political life, Tanner lays bare the relentless decline of political reporting and political behaviour that occurred during his career. On media, on politics, on Australia today, Megalogenis and Tanner are a formidable double-act.

Among highlights of the discussion, Tanner argues that parliamentary question time is plagued by a complete and antiquated obsession with “performance art for the six o'clock news”. As focus groups and “announceables” lower the tone of public debate, politicians are forced to engage in “the politics of the moment”, engineering discourse to maximum impact and mass appeal. While Tanner acknowledges that intermediaries have always played an important role in politics, he considers the current influence of the media unhealthily disproportionate.

Polls and popularity are recurrent themes as Megalogenis navigates Tanner’s critique of contemporary Australian politics. Tanner agrees FuelWatch and GroceryWatch were examples of strategies designed to be perceived as reducing the cost of living in order to woo constituents. However, Tanner adds, “to do substantial things that actually have an impact on the cost of living involves things that are abstract, longer term and very removed from day to day media discourse.”

Tanner and Megalogenis see Kevin Rudd’s fall from power as an example of the power of polling and as a peculiarity of the Australian system. In the US, it would be neither conceivable nor possible for a deputy to oust a leader in similar circumstances. Tanner weighs the merits of parliamentary and presidential systems and indicates his preference for the former, though he is in favour of directly electing a leader.

In considering the disappointing standard of political debate in the media, Tanner ponders the oddity of “me too-ism” and explains that he regards the rising Greens vote as “a revolt of the educated classes against the inanity of mainstream political discourse, and against ‘standing up for Australia’ versus ‘moving forward’.” He compares the Greens movement with the One Nation revolt, “just from a very different segment of the community.”

Finally, Tanner offers his suggestions for untangling the relationship between media and political spheres. He argues this is necessary if Australia is to move beyond the lowest common denominator and return to responsible, values-driven politics.

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