Man discovers the obvious! Re-enter the social from stage left

Eva Cox, University of Technology, Sydney

Lindsay Tanner Crowded Lives, Sydney, Pluto Press, 2003 (124 pp). ISBN 1-86403-272-3 (paperback) RRP $22.95.

The day I started writing this review (17 September), Ross Gittins praised Lindsay Tanner’s new book in his column in The Sydney Morning Herald. The next day, several responses on the letters page all welcomed Tanner’s proposal for a policy shift from the economic to the social. Most approved, but one respondent opined that Tanner’s proposal confirmed that Australia needs to move back to traditional religious values to counter ‘rampant individualism and libertarianism’—for example, feminism. It is not immediately clear how to interpret Tanner’s intervention, and public responses to it. Perhaps they are harbingers of changing priorities amongst policy makers? More likely, they are evidence of a form of political/policy gender apartheid, under which ideas and problems are only taken seriously in the public arena when men raise them.

I have a long history advocating the argument Tanner makes in his slim volume that ‘we consistently undervalue the importance of relationships in our decision-making process’ (p. 9). It would be unacceptable for a white historian to state now that white Australians had ‘discovered’ this country, thereby ignoring the existence of indigenous people. So why should we be pleased when males ‘discover’ the social parts of policy as something new? The explanation is deep in our history, when relationships and social connections were excluded from the public political agenda because they were seen as private, that is, part of the feminine realm of households and emotions. However, the primacy of the social rather than the economic has been recognised and explored by many feminists over time. Ergo my disappointment on reading the latest example of intellectual colonisation: Crowded Lives, in which Tanner ‘discovers’ the importance of including personal relationships in public policy.

Welcome to the Other world! Women have been arguing for many years against a public/private divide still strongly defined by economic discourses on both Left and Right. But there is no evidence of these contributions in this book. Tanner’s recognition of the importance of relationships would have been more welcome had he recognised feminist writing in this area, rather than seeing himself as Robinson Crusoe stepping on untouched ground. Maybe he needed to oversimplify the past to be able to proclaim the novelty of the social as a new take on policies.

Tanner can also be criticised for oversimplifying the problems of the current zeitgeist of self-interest. By assuming that these problems derive only from the ‘me-generation’ aspects of various rights movements, including women’s liberation, he ignores the impact of neo-liberalism. Rights movements are not innocent of individual self-serving, but Tanner ignores their major push from the 60s for strongly collective solutions—perhaps sometimes misplaced—for the woes of society, not just of individual lives. In particular, I object to the way he accepts some current claims that feminism is simply a vehicle for personal advancement, especially as he claims to have been around at the start of that phase of the movement. It needs to be recognised that this view of feminism has been produced by the same neo-liberal forces that created other forms of individualism.

Men might take Tanner's ideas seriously because a senior male figure is advocating them.

The women’s movement was based on collectivities. We promoted the need to break down the male-defined divide between public and private that relegated many of our concerns out of the range of government intervention. We claimed that the personal was to be political. This is exactly the paradigm shift that Tanner has rediscovered, without acknowledging its history and present-day existence.

I acknowledge a personal concern in Tanner’s apparent unfamiliarity with my 1995 Boyer lectures, which covered many of the same topics, although in greater depth (Cox 1995). He also misses the debates in more recent work, including books on the ALP such as Party Girls (Deverall et al. 1999), in which his support for feminist ideals is acknowledged. Because his book is intended as political text, rather than an academic one, I do not expect him to cite Carole Pateman or Iris Marion Young, let alone Arlie Hochschild (1997), all of whom have written on feminism’s exclusions from public policy debates.

Failure to build on such previous work makes the book rather dull reading for those of us who have been reading, writing, and even lobbying, for policy changes in this area. I wonder whether there will be enough new readers to make a difference. If I am right in my assumption that men don’t read policy proposals written by women (let alone feminists), maybe this book will reach out to men, who might take these ideas seriously because a senior male figure is advocating for them. If so, we should welcome Tanner’s contribution to a fold he doesn’t even acknowledge. As one of the supposed newer wave within Labor, Tanner’s credentials as a hard man of economics and communication may make his new-found conversion to the softer arenas of policy more acceptable than the views of the women, both insiders and outsiders.

The question then becomes the usefulness of his content. This book follows in the steps of other writers who have, over the last decade or so, found inadequate both neo-liberalism’s individual materialism, and the Left’s now diminishing determined collective materialism. These writers include people like Francis Fukuyama, Richard Sennett, and, locally, Clive Hamilton, all of whom Tanner acknowledges. This makes more notable his omission of the many women writers on the questions he addresses. On the local scene, Moira Rayner, Belinda Probert, Barbara Pocock (2002), Carmen Lawrence, Gabrielle Meagher and many others, including myself, have been working on alternate policy frameworks that recognise relationships.

Tanner's omissions are often more interesting than his proposals.

As well as this apparent gender bias in his influences, Tanner seems also to suffer from cultural cringe. He frequently quotes a UK think tank, The Relationship Foundation, but ignores local groups like the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which are doing good work on social capital (see, for example, Stone 2002). The result is a slight book, both in length and in substance. It fails to set really new directions, offering instead a set of slightly shop worn arguments and far too few practical policy proposals. Sometimes Tanner appears to lose the plot completely. For example, he claims that ‘tough on crime’ measures are an appropriate way to deal with fear of crime even when the crime rates may not warrants the measures, and he fails to recognise that the introduction of these measures itself legitimates fear of crime.

This example illustrates the major weaknesses of the book. Tanner shows the problems of writing as a sitting Labor front bench Member of Parliament. Given the present tensions about policy and leadership, frontbenchers have little freedom to pursue policy problems, particularly outside their portfolio. Anything he writes must be sufficiently anodyne to avoid scaring the media or upsetting existing policies and practices of other Labor people in power, or those hoping to be. This results in much of what he proposes being vague and muted down. His only concrete proposal seems to be the introduction of some form of relational impact statements into Cabinet decision-making. He states ‘ Major political decisions should be informed by an analysis of their likely impact on human relationships’ and says ‘A proposal should be assessed against relational benchmarks, as well as economic and environmental benchmarks’ (p. 22). But that is as specific as it gets.

In another chapter on how the workplace affects relationships, Tanner discusses the tensions between longer hours and families’ needs. Here, his omissions are often more interesting than his proposals. He finishes the crucial chapter on workplace changes with some platitudes about putting relationships at the centre of industrial relations. Although this is the core of his desired change, he makes no specific suggestions about how it might be achieved, because his political strait jacket does not allow him to speak on this area.

Tanner also quotes substantially from Clive Hamilton’s (2003) rather retro rejection of materialism and gender roles. Their concurrence on such themes makes me wonder whether there are some Left males who, in a midlife crisis, romanticise a return to simpler lifestyles. Feminists worry that counterculture lifestyles often increase the burden of domestic labour for women, so pardon my wariness.

There are still separate streams of policy, that is, ‘women’s issues’ and ‘real issues’.

His chapter on boys and men is fine except where he seems to tread close to the line of mother/women blaming. He specifically states that feminism shouldn’t be blamed, but many of his arguments implicitly compare male and female situations in ways which seem to show male disadvantage, and which ignore the continuing dominance of males in power. Tanner frames his experiences and concerns carefully to avoid a gender conflict model, but it feels as though gender conflict is just below the surface. Again, he fails to offer specific proposals for new policies, and I fear that his words will feed the army of angry men who blame girls for doing better at school and women for initiating divorce.

Another chapter contains an odd mix of identity, the republic, and Anzacs, with less stress on putting relationships at the centre of policy-making than in other parts of the book. However, this is the only place where he makes (very brief and inadequate) mention of cultural diversity and indigenous questions. Similarly scant is his treatment in another chapter on digital media. This is disappointing because here, at least he can speak because it’s his portfolio. This chapter deals with the social effects of new technology such as the Internet, mobile phones, and Gameboys, but again offers little practical policy advice.

In sum, there is little of real interest in this book except that it was written and promoted as though it was a major contribution to contemporary policy debate. It could have been useful if it had furthered the cause of joint action between feminists and the male Left. It reinforces my concern that there are still separate streams of policy, that is, ‘women’s issues’ and ‘real issues’. Family friendly workplaces, parental leave, childcare, and workplace access and fairness should be core policies but men need to build on the work we feminists have done and are still doing. It would have been so much better if a major, sometimes sympathetic, member of the Left of the ALP had written a book on relationships in public policy that acknowledged the work feminists have already put in. It would have indicated that men and women could start working together on common problems. The ALP is not the only guilty party, as the so-called ‘soft’ issues are still very contested territory. Pity!


Cox, E. 1995, A Truly Civil Society, ABC Books, Sydney.

Deverall, K., Sharp, P., Huntley, R. & Tilly, J. (eds) 2000, Party Girls: Labor Women Now, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Hamilton, C. 2003, Growth Fetish, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Hochschild, A. 1997, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, Metropolitan Books, New York.

Pocock, B. 2003, The Work/Life Collision, Federation Press, Sydney.

Stone, W., Gray, M. & Hughes, J. 2002, Social capital at work: How family, friends and civic ties relate to labour market outcomes, Research Paper No. 31, Australian Institute of Family Studies, [Online], Available:

Eva Cox is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at UTS. She is also a long term activist. Her ABC Boyer Lectures in 1995 raised issues of creating a more civil society, which she is now following up with work on organisational ethics.