Politics with Purpose: Occasional Observations on Public and Private Life

Politics with Purpose: Occasional Observations on Public and Private Life


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‘We cannot blame particular individuals for modern Labor’s malaise, because it is part of a systemic global phenomenon. We are all under the sway of politics without purpose. And politics without purpose is pointless.’

Nothing could better sum up Lindsay Tanner’s forthright attitude to politics and the public interest than these resounding sentences from the concluding section of Politics with Purpose.

In a parliamentary career spanning 18 years, culminating in his position as the minister for finance and deregulation in the Rudd–Gillard governments, Lindsay Tanner always talked straight, and was always worth reading or listening to.

Now we can see why. In this edited selection of his press articles, speeches, and occasional essays from 1990 to 2012, Tanner discusses a range of major subjects: Labor’s problems and prospects; globalisation and its discontents; the family ties that bind; facing up to important values; the need for compassion; and lessons from his own life.

Some pieces are short and lighthearted; others are longer and deeply serious. But whether the subject matter is economic, political, or personal, his range of interests and insights is remarkable. Lindsay Tanner’s thoughtfulness and humanity are evident on every page, demonstrating once again what the nation lost when he departed from national politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781922070043
Publisher: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Lindsay Tanner was the minister for finance and deregulation in the Rudd–Gillard governments, and held the seat of Melbourne for the ALP from 1993 to 2010. Having retired from politics at the 2010 federal election, he is now a special adviser to Lazard Australia, and is a vice-chancellor’s fellow and adjunct professor at Victoria University. Mr Tanner is the author of several previous books, including Politics with Purpose (2012) and Sideshow (2011), also published by Scribe.

Paul Kelly is Editor-at-Large at The Australian.

Read an Excerpt

Politics with purpose

Occasional Observations on Public and Private Life

By Lindsay Tanner

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Lindsay Tanner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921942-91-4


Part I Politics

The Left's Future

[26 December 1994]

The perennial factional battles within the Labor Party seem to continue unabated, but, beneath the surface, dramatic change is occurring. The substance that underpins the apparently rigid ideological divisions is melting away.

When I joined the Victorian left in 1980, the gulf between left and right was enormous. The left was anti-American, state socialist, industrially militant, and radical on environmental, civil liberties, and gender issues. The right was pro-American, mildly social democratic, industrially pragmatic, and socially conservative. Internal ALP politics were dominated by the Cold War, and echoes of the 1955 Democratic Labor Party split and 1970 federal intervention still reverberated through the party.

Over the past decade, these polarities have diminished considerably. The ALP's left-right spectrum no longer consists of two clearly defined, diametrically opposed positions with little in between.

The Cold War is over, and the landmark international conflicts in the Middle East, Latin America, and southern Africa have changed irrevocably. Support for state socialism, already weakened among younger left activists in the 1980s, has virtually collapsed. Factors such as occupational interests, increasing female participation, industry unionism, and amalgamations have changed the face of trade union politics enormously. Militancy is restrained by international imperatives, and it is harder for companies to pass on to the community the cost of wage increases.

With the relatively unrestrained militancy of the 1960s fading, the relevance of right-wing unions as tame-cat alternatives to militant 'communist' unions is diminishing. The drastic reduction in industrial disputation that has flowed from economic internationalisation has all but destroyed their 'moderate' sales pitch. All unions must now pursue membership on the basis of service and strength.

The Western world has experienced two profound political revolutions since World War II: the 1960s' social revolution and the 1980s' economic revolution. The contemporary situation of all mainstream Australian political movements can be understood largely by reference to their response to these forces.

The Australian left embraced the 1960s' revolution quickly. The Labor right resisted the new forces of feminism, environmentalism, and participatory democracy.

During the 1980s, the roles were reversed. The right embraced deregulation, internationalisation, and privatisation, while the left fought a dogged rearguard action against these trends. Few in the Labor Party now argue that women belong in the home. There is little support for high-tariff strategies. Battles still occur along these social and economic fault-lines, but they do not always reflect prevailing factional divisions.

In a sense, the right has absorbed the left's social agenda, and the left is gradually absorbing the right's economic agenda. Substantial resistance to the economic revolution continues within left and right, and most activists within both groups exhibit strong scepticism. Nevertheless, the widespread retreat from the doctrines of state socialism has created a level of ideological convergence not seen within the Labor Party since the 1930s.

The gradual shift from British to American influences throughout Australian society has also affected Labor's factional landscape.

The Australian Labor left is very much a creature of the British Labour Party. The right, especially in NSW, is heavily influenced by the United States Democratic Party. Right-wing unionists attend the Harvard trade union course in the US. Key NSW right figures belong to the Chester Alan Arthur Society, which celebrates American politics. They revere Roosevelt and the Kennedy dynasty, and imitate the style of the great Tammany Hall empires such as the Daley machine in Chicago. Their rituals, like the True Believers' dinner, mimic the razzamatazz of American politics.

The uncharacteristically radical commitment of the NSW right to an Australian republic is largely a product of these American influences.

The left is essentially a product of British class struggle and trade unionism. Even now, there are large numbers of British-born officials in left-wing unions, and far fewer in right-wing unions. British-born Labor MPs — such as Peter Milton, John Scott, and Gordon McIntosh — have almost invariably been from the left. The left's commitment to the Socialist Objective, party control over politicians, and the primacy of the industrial struggle is a direct legacy from the British Labour movement.

Naturally, there have been exceptions — particularly the influence of the Irish — that permeated both factions. The most important point about this distinction, however, is that it is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

New influences are beginning to emerge from non-English-speaking communities and the effects of economic integration with Asia. Future cultural foundations for Labor factional divisions will be bipolar, but will reflect a much more varied and diffuse range of influences.

The economic model that once clearly distinguished the left from the right has been devastated by economic internationalisation and by changes in the production process. Marxist economic analysis was built on mid-19th-century Europe, a world of landless peasants and factories full of blue-collar workers. Even in mid-20th-century post-war Europe, the state-socialist model worked quite well: the East more or less kept pace with the West economically. In a shattered world fighting to satisfy basic needs, state socialism was just as effective at providing huge concrete apartment blocks and smokestack factories as was capitalism.

Since then, developed industrial economies have became too complex, too dynamic, and too diverse to be run by tight, centralised control without enormous loss of efficiency and individual freedom. Advances in microelectronics, telecommunications, and various other technologies drastically reduced the potential for state control of economic activity.

Command economies and dictatorships across the world were swamped by a wave of economic change. Even in mixed capitalist economies, centralised structures have been eroded substantially.

This wave of economic change has been magnified in Australia by change in our region. The rapid economic development of former colonies, previously retarded by imperial domination, has added another dimension to internationalisation. The isolationist economic assumptions upon which the Australian version of state socialism was constructed have virtually melted away.

The Australian left's view of class has also been challenged by economic change. Australia is no longer dominated by confrontation between blue-collar workers and robber-baron capitalists. Most wage-earners and salary-earners are white-collar workers, many earning less than skilled blue-collar workers. The powerful blue-collar chauvinism in left culture is largely alien to these workers.

Capital is also changing: robber barons are being replaced by workers' superannuation funds. A new privileged class is emerging — one which derives its economic power not from the ownership of capital, but from the possession of specialised skills and knowledge. The left could legitimately aspire to socialise capital, but it is difficult to socialise the contents of people's heads. The Marxist obsession with the individual's role in the process of production is outdated. In many respects, it is consumption rather than production that defines class divisions in contemporary Australian society.

Location of housing, access to services, consumption of private education, health, and other services, access to information technology, overseas travel, and lifestyle characteristics tell us far more about an individual than does his or her role in the production process. The two are interrelated, of course, but the assumption that production dictates consumption is no longer valid.

The simple world of factory owners in top hats, silk suits, and Bentleys, and workers in cloth caps, overalls, and trains has passed.

With the foundations of its traditional perspective crumbling, where does this leave the left?

Clearly, a renovation of the left's culture and mentality is a critical priority. The crude blue-collar chauvinism and culture of protest and confrontation may be central to a glorious past, but the left faces a very different contemporary reality and an even more challenging future.

Various unsavory aspects of left culture should also be allowed to fade, such as intellectual rigidity, the emphasis on organisation at the expense of analysis, Leninist modes of organisation, and the continual search for traitors.

The rise of secularism and the collapse of communism have left the Western world without a 'moral order'. In other parts of the world, Islam is filling this void. The Australian left should break with its Eurocentric past and study such developments closely.

The most likely source of a new moral order for the left is the environment movement. Though still fairly incoherent, a new collectivist philosophy is emerging that is universal rather than class-based and that incorporates a level of commitment to individual freedom, opportunity, and responsibility which eluded state socialism.

The emerging moral order is both collective, incorporating social frameworks of equity, security, and community, and individual, providing for personal freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. It provides a basis for a constructive response to phenomena such as fear of crime and distrust of bureaucracy, powerful and legitimate social forces seen by the old-left mentality as a mere right-wing backlash.

Can the left build a new moral order on the ashes of state socialism? Millions of people throughout the world face a bleak future if it is unable to rise to the challenge.

Labor, Hanson, and the New World View

[4 February 1997]

In contemporary Australia, almost all major issues have an international aspect. Roughly a quarter of our economy is now directly international. More than a quarter of what we consume is imported, and more than a fifth of what we produce is exported. These proportions have virtually doubled in fifteen years.

Dramatic technological change in communications, steadily diminishing transport costs, the increasing dominance of the services economy, and the end of the Cold War have internationalised human existence. The extraordinary impact that this has had on the domestic politics of many countries is not widely understood.

Until recently, politics in most developed nations was essentially bipolar. Class divisions between workers and employers, rich and poor, middle class and working class provided a stable framework around which democratic government revolved.

This framework is now being destabilised by internationalisation. Throughout the world, the international dimension is increasing. Dominant and existing politica1 allegiances and alliances are fracturing.

In Australia, this fracturing poses acute problems for the ALP. With its support base increasingly divided by the effects of internationalisation, how should Labor respond? Before internationalisation, Australia was a white settler society in a heavily colonised, non-white region, an island with an enormous land mass and small population, an exporter of commodities suffering a prolonged downturn in its terms of trade, with a heavily protected manufacturing sector. These factors have made the transition to globalisation extremely difficult for Australia.

Australia has been forced to negotiate its internationalisation from a position of economic weakness. Our physical and cultural isolation has inhibited our ability to respond to change. Our history and location have diminished our capacity to develop a new identity and role in a world radically different from that of the 1950s. These problems are encapsulated in the widespread lament about Australia's long-term decline from having the world's highest per-capita income in 1900 to little better than twentieth now. The fact that this decline is largely the product of external factors seems to escape most commentators.

Australia has developed a sophisticated institutional framework governing the distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity within our society. This framework is the outcome of decades of political battles and compromises between competing interests. lnternationalisation is gradually destroying much of this framework, and detaching many people from institutional structures that they have built their lives around.

These structures have been unable to withstand the impact of internationalised markets. Cross-subsidised utility prices can no longer be carried by businesses forced to compete internationally. Modest inflation can no longer be used as a weapon to ensure full employment, as investors can invest elsewhere. High-taxation regimes cannot be sustained when the capacity to avoid tax has expanded enormously. Racist immigration policies cannot be sustained in a region of dynamic new economies that have outgrown their colonial past.

The erosion of these structures has hurt many Australians, and undermined the confidence and security of many more. Low-skilled manufacturing workers, primary producers, and older managerial workers have all suffered. Others, such as highly skilled workers in information and technology-driven industries, have prospered.

The impact of the international upon the national has been central to recent political developments throughout the Western world. It has produced a wave of realignment and fragmentation, such as the shift of blue-collar allegiance from established social- democratic parties to the populist right. The National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, Pat Buchanan in the United States, and John Howard and Pauline Hanson in Australia have all benefited from this trend.

The most stark example of the impact of internationalisation on political alignments can be found in New Zealand, where politics is now essentially quadrilateral rather than bipolar, based on two axes: the old division between middle class and working class, and the new division between national and international.

The traditional parties of left and right, Labor and National, both broadly accept internationalisation. They have both spawned breakaway parties, the Alliance and New Zealand First, that don't. Proportional representation has enabled these new divisions to be fully expressed in a way that could not happen in Australia. The same political forces are nonetheless emerging in Australia: the Hanson phenomenon has parallels in New Zealand First.

The ALP's dilemma in such circumstances is that it cannot afford to abandon its traditional constituency to the false allure of right-wing populism, but it cannot afford to head down that path itself in order to retain their support.

The answer to this dilemma lies in a new approach to internationalisation. Labor cannot reject globalisation, but it should avoid the uncritical celebration that tended to characterise the Hawke and Keating governments. Labor's approach should emerge from concepts of negotiation.

This would recognise globalisation as an inevitable stage in human development, similar to the transition from city-state to nation. It would acknowledge that a great deal of globalisation is broadly inevitable but entirely negotiable in detail. It would distinguish between globalisation as fact, and globalisation as ideology. It would understand that economic nationalism and racial-cultural chauvinism are very closely intertwined.

At the end of the last century, the labour movement responded very warily to the prospect of Federation. Labor now faces a similar dilemma: separating what can be done nationally from what must be done internationally.

The emergence of bodies such as the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and the World Trade Organisation, the prospect of a single European currency, and the success of international organisations such as Greenpeace suggest that much of our previously national political discourse is becoming international. Labor should identify specific national and international objectives to pursue through this new political framework. In practice, this will mean giving a much higher priority to the pursuit of issues in the international arena, such as a labour-rights clause in the WTO charter. It will also mean acknowledging that our room for manoeuvre in areas such as competition policy is much greater than many assume, and that a totally different approach is required.

Negotiate Change for the Better

[8 February 1999]

Since World War II, the Western world has experienced two profound political revolutions: the 1960s' social revolution and the 1980s' economic revolution. These revolutions are reflected in the two terms that now dominate political discourse in Australia: political correctness and economic rationalism.


Excerpted from Politics with purpose by Lindsay Tanner. Copyright © 2012 Lindsay Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note,
Foreword by Paul Kelly,
Part I/Politics,
Part II/Relationships,
Part III/Values,
Part IV/Justice,
Part V/Living,
Part VI/Economics,
Part VII/Labor,
Publication details,

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