That Lindsay Tanner suddenly appeared in the media at an inconvenient time for the Gillard Government is best explained by the time it has taken to write his new book, and the decisions of his publisher. Anyway, as he tried to point out to the unpleasant Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, there isn’t any convenient time for someone like him to say what he is saying.
I kept saying ‘Yes!’ as he ran through his points. Ms Sales tried her hardest to get him to say something condemnatory of Julia Gillard as Labor leader, but he wouldn’t be drawn. I miss his calm, measured style and pleasant voice, and wish he was still there in Federal Parliament.
I had a long conversation with him at a dinner many years ago. He is a country boy from Gippsland, and his mother worked for Peter Nixon, the Country Party MP for Gippsland. I have known Peter for a long time, and commented to him about Lindsay Tanner. Nixon was most complimentary, and said that he had written the strongest recommendation for a Rhodes Scholarship for young Tanner that he had ever written.
I don’t always agree with what Lindsay Tanner says and writes, but I admire the way he argues. He is someone whom you have to take seriously. I was still impressed when I failed to get him to see things my way when he was the Minister for Finance, and I was trying to get him to push more funding towards the National Capital Authority.
Tanner’s view is that Labor has lost its basic sense of what Labor in government is for, and that the displacement of Kevin Rudd was a bad decision driven by panic about the direction of the polls and a disenchantment with the Prime Minister within the party. He, Lindsay Tanner, had already announced that he would not be seeking re-election to his seat of Melbourne, which he had won in 1993, beating one Julia Gillard in the pre-selection round.
Why was he leaving? The simple answer was that he was getting tired of it all. He would never succeed to the Prime Ministership, for Julia Gillard was both the Deputy PM and younger than him anyway. He had done what he could, and it was time to go. Few politicians are as clear-sighted and as unemotional about themselves. Of course, if you were sceptical you might offer the alternative assessment that he was no shoo-in for re-election in Melbourne anyway, and his vacated seat was won by the Greens. Well, I said he was clear-sighted.
Labor is in trouble, not just the Gillard Government. Less than one worker in five belongs to a trade union, and the tide has turned: it is probably true that the time has passed when most Australians look to government to secure their futures. My guess is that most now see government as an obstacle, and want to be rather freer of its clutches than they presently are.
The light on the hill is still there. The Australian project is to build a safe and harmonious society under the Southern Cross, one that offers everyone the chance to develop their talents. But the depression of the 1890s, the greater depression of the 1930s, the work of the Curtin and Chifley governments – these past milestones are of little resonance in 2012.
What is Labor for in the next twenty years? How does it make its message relevant to our diverse, highly urban, well educated, well off society? Who is doing it? Lindsay Tanner argues that no one is doing it, and that the party is intellectually and emotionally threadbare. He joins a long line of Labor heavyweights who have been saying something like this since Labor lost power in 1996. Membership of the party has never been lower – well, not for a century.
What we have today is the contest between the party of the Ins and the party of the Outs. Their members belong to the political class, and many of them could belong to the other side (and might switch, if the offer was tempting enough). The enthusiasm of Labor supporters for Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader is an indication.
Will things change if the coalition wins the next election? Not at all.