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Book Review: Crowded Lives wants more relaxed consideration of policy

By Natasha Cica - posted Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Left-wing dotcom millionaire Evan Thornley, new owner of Pluto Press which published Lindsay Tanner's Crowded Lives, recently observed in The Bulletin that the Australian Labor Party has "a surplus of young ambitious men … wanting to get their arse on a piece of green leather and … a deficit of people interested in developing fundamental answers to the challenges we face". Tanner has been sitting on that prized green leather since he was elected as the Federal Member for Melbourne in 1993. Unlike too many of his fellow and aspirational parliamentarians, however, he's clearly very interested in meeting the challenges identified by Thornley.

Crowded Lives examines the damage that playing the fast-paced, globalised game of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy inflicts on our intimate and social relationships. Tanner raises questions about our jostling over-commitments to paid work, family, community and childrearing. He argues that we need to put our relationships on politics' centre stage to build a healthier and more secure society, where people are connected in ways and places beyond Internet chatrooms, Family Court orders and credit card debt. Tanner envisages a society where every man, woman and child feels they belong and are valued, where social worth is not measured according to unrealistic benchmarks of performance, appearance or consumption. In sum, a place where people are more important than money.

Taking issue with any of this can feel a bit like crushing Nanna's Anzac biscuits underfoot. Funny that, because Tanner reviews the myth of ANZAC as a "guiding story" for his new society. He presents Gallipoli as a symbol of national inclusion rather than jingoistic nationalism, one that sends important messages about self-sacrifice and service to the community.


Bronzing the ANZAC is Tanner's lever into discussing the Howard-Hansonite "culture wars" over race issues. Breathing this c-word is a politically dangerous business these days, and Tanner keeps this part of his discussion brief. But he does gesture towards the need to separate the racist goats from the merely frightened sheep in understanding community sentiment on these questions, and conjures the spectre of "'relational apartheid', full of racial and cultural divisions built on fear, hatred and contempt" if the modern Australian projects of multiculturalism and reconciliation are abandoned. And he points to the "profound responsibility" of those who are initiators of change to ensure it is pursued in an "inclusive and understanding way". There's a lot of space between these lines for Labor Party faithful, lapsed and collapsed to read in messages about the need for better - and better communicated - Opposition responses to the agenda polled and pushed by the Howard government on questions to do with race.

There's more prescriptive detail in Crowded Lives on no less controversial questions about family. Tanner talks about the impact of divorce (including his own) and "crowded" living on fathering, and about the education of boys and the widespread alienation of young men in our society. He explores these frequently polarising topics without "them vs us" blaming. He points out our responsibilities to the people under our care or influence, and the importance of devising reforms that help us meet those obligations.

Unfortunately, however, Tanner combines his refreshing take on personal and social responsibility with a worrying attack on the "liberationist left". In common with some recent commentary by Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton, and clearly influenced by key moralists of Tony Blair's New Labour project in Britain, to an extent Tanner falls into the trap of collapsing the worst of post-WWII materialism with the liberationist social, sexual and political revolutions that gained momentum in the 1960s. It's too easy to characterise those movements for change as just about "doing your own thing", regardless of the wider consequences. That era led internationally to the legal, political and institutional maturity of the late-20th century's human rights and environmentalist projects, as just two examples, every bit as much as it produced lost teenagers shooting up in highrise housing estates from Manchester to Melbourne. In Australia, it saw street marches translating into the policies of a Federal Labor government that pulled Australian troops out of the US-led Vietnam war, gave women equal pay, removed university fees, and which had room for an Attorney-General determined to curb, not unleash, the powers of ASIO. Given the parallels between key issues of then and now, it's a bad time for Labor to dismiss civil liberties as outmoded slogans mouthed by flowerchildren.

Tanner's saving grace is that he heeds his own advice; constructive debate demands less belligerence and more listening than is commonly seen in Australian public life today. Tanner speaks some plain and homespun truths but he's no bully-bloke. His book aims to open up conversations rather than shut them down. This may mean Tanner won't slide much further up Labor's green leather bench but let's hope he does, and that he's not alone if he gets there.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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