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Australia Latham's Law

Latham’s law

In reading Lindsay Tanner’s new book Sideshow, the words of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra came to mind: ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ Tanner makes the argument I have been making for a decade: that the trivialisation of politics in the mass media is destroying the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

In reading Lindsay Tanner’s new book Sideshow, the words of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra came to mind: ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ Tanner makes the argument I have been making for a decade: that the trivialisation of politics in the mass media is destroying the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.

In reading Lindsay Tanner’s new book Sideshow, the words of baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra came to mind: ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ Tanner makes the argument I have been making for a decade: that the trivialisation of politics in the mass media is destroying the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.

The book is remarkable, not for its freshness, but for the fact that Tanner is advancing this argument. During his 17 years in parliament, he was not known as an opponent of media sensationalism. In fact, I always thought he kept a clinic of Press Gallery journalists on the drip. Little did I realise Tanner was a closet critic, a diligent folder-holder, filing away press clippings in which he had been inaccurately reported.

These stories are rolled out in Sideshow, atrocity after atrocity, to prove the incompetence of Australia’s media houses. In this, however, Tanner lags behind public opinion. Most people have developed a sharp cynicism about the media, adopting the motto: ‘Never believe what you read in the paper or hear on the news.’ Not surprisingly, ratings and readership have fallen away, victims of the unreliability of modern journalism.

Another striking feature of the book is the way in which a senior Labor minister has left politics, crushed and disillusioned by the process. While careful not to directly criticise his former colleagues, Tanner confirms our worst fears about the internal processes of the Rudd/Gillard government. Spin has triumphed over substance. Polling is more important than political conviction. Media presentation is valued above policy-making. In the words of the former finance minister:

During the interminable discussions within the government around presentational issues, I sometimes joked with colleagues that we should experiment with governing well: maybe that would go down well in the focus groups and the polls.


In his earlier books Tanner presented a well-written narrative of this thinking. Sideshow, however, is different. Parallel to his press clippings folder, Tanner systematically collected quotations critical of the media, recycling them into his book. I love them all, of course, but even I felt snowed under by their volume. The reader is presented with a smorgasbord of critiques, the accumulated impact of which is to obscure Tanner’s own beliefs.

I found it hard to grasp, for instance, what he regards as the driving force behind media trivialisation. Instead, I joined the bistro queue and selected my dish of choice, from the Australian publisher Eric Beecher:

The future of serious journalism is under threat because it has been replaced by entertainment at the heart of the media power edifice. Journalists are lumped together as a class of professional exploiters whose primary objective in life is to hustle for ratings or circulation … Not only is entertainment more profitable than journalism, it is far more universal. Entertainment appeals to all age groups, all demographics, across all cultural boundaries.

Tanner outs a number of journalists for unethical behaviour. His most damning account concerns the 2010 election campaign when:

Patricia Karvelas of the Australian was proposing to write a major story suggesting that I had disappeared from the campaign. When told by my media advisor that I was helping prepare for my mother-in-law’s funeral, she asked: ‘Can I get a line on that?’ (meaning comment for her story).

Psychiatrists might have a different opinion, but surely this incident points to a serious problem in life. Imagine being told that someone had passed away and your response is to ask, ‘Can I get a line on that?’ Perhaps Karvelas needs to line up at the nearest funny farm.

In finding solutions to the sideshow syndrome, Tanner flirts with the benefits of voluntary voting. I support this idea. One of the basic rights of a democracy should be the freedom to abstain from voting. During the last Federal election I advocated the lodgement of blank ballot papers in protest at the vacuous nature of the campaign. Under Australia’s coercive electoral laws, this is also the only way in which people can legally abstain from voting for candidates.

When the lower house informal vote jumped from 3.95 to 5.55 per cent, a number of commentators were sceptical about the impact of blank voting. For example, the Australian’s electoral ‘expert’ Peter Brent (aka Mumble) pointed to a range of alternative reasons, concluding: ‘Is the Latham theory right? I very much doubt it.’ He even forecast vindication of his ‘expert’ opinion: ‘We’ll be returning to this topic, don’t you worry about that. There’s plenty more to gnaw on. And the AEC’s 2010 informal votes analysis to look forward to.’

That was eight months ago. Eight weeks ago the AEC released its analysis, yet Mumble has remained mute.

The AEC found a record number of blank votes, doubling from 0.79 per cent of votes cast in 2007 to 1.6 per cent. As my magnificent spouse has reminded me, ‘It’s the best election swing you’ve ever had.’ For the first time, the number of blank informal votes for the House of Representatives exceeded those marked ‘number one only’.

Mumble was not the only psephologist to ignore the AEC’s findings: most media outlets joined him in this neglect. Australia’s political class supports compulsory and formal voting as a way of legitimising its work. This is unlikely to change, of course, adding to my déjà vu. Like the books we wrote in the late 1990s promoting new Labor ideas, voluntary voting is another Tanner/Latham pipedream.


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