Panel show by numbers: ABC Q&A, Syria and all the usual suspects

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ABC Q&A panellists, Monday 16 April, 2018 (Image via

The latest episode of ABC Q&A revealed just how formulaic and two-dimensional the show is in its approach to serious issues, writes Binoy Kampark.

AUSTRALIAN QUESTION and answer sessions, otherwise compressed as Q&A on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, tend to provide the viewer an arid view about a country’s anaemic democracy. While the national broadcaster makes a fist of it garnering an audience equipped with half-decent questions, the same cannot be said of the panellists. Often, unless they stem from the ranks of science pedagogues and cosmologists, they are people who have come with their scripts tailored, moulded and shaped to dull repetition controlled by some celestial being or party apparatus. 

The formula for guests is generally familiar: the house-trained minister, who parrots rather than responds; the similarly domesticated opposition shadow minister or member of parliament, terrified at sounding too different; an international personality (a bonus having one) in Australia for marsupials and business; and some cultural figure (because if you sing, you obviously must have political ideas).

The international guest on Monday’s program was Kenneth Roth, a figure who looks more likely to be running a bank or a blue stock chip company rather than a human rights organisation. And there we have the first problem of the night, which might have drawn a useful question: Should human rights defenders be corporatised to this degree? Discuss.

Such figures are mindful of political propriety. Complex scenarios are not necessarily good for them and Syria is virtually unfathomable, a grand expanse of inscrutable cruelties and untold of suffering. But sides are always taken and Roth’s line was predictably against the Syrian government and its Russian sponsors who have attained a stranglehold over the conflict. No mention of Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and the Allied contributions, including Australia, to the bloodbath.

Roth did, however, concede to a certain irony in recent bombing of Syrian government targets by the U.S., UK and France:

“The irony here is that it’s much easier to bomb Syria in response to [President Bashar al-] Assad’s atrocities than it is to [accept] refugees who are fleeing this. We should do the hard thing.” 

That hard thing, something Australian governments since the last decade have repeatedly refused to do, is bring in far more refugees.

The Government spokesman will be Lego-like and bland — a sort of trained dummy who must never get too extreme and attempt, on the surface at least, to speak to Middle Australia, even when it can’t be found. Such a figure is not Peter Dutton, whose political climes are to be found on shock jock radio. While he will be asked by the ABC to attend, such a figure is rarely seen on the premises of a program he would regard as “leftist”.

What we had on Monday was the grey bearded Mitch Fifield, Government Minister for Communications and the Arts. Fifield tends to be trotted out when the government needs to keep things modest, given it has much to be modest about. The debacle that is the National Broadband Network will always haunt the minister, with Fifield masticating his words like an undernourished waif, giving away a set of inventive interpretations as to why Australia languishes in the rankings of internet connectivity and speed. He was also the convenient target for Dutton’s approach to refugees — something he has been before.

The Opposition figure from the Labor party will always be vanilla (no taste testing there), taking cues from central command, hoping that there is no overstepping, let alone overstating a position.

Such was the bland note from Labor's Veterans' Affairs spokeswoman, Amanda Rishworth:

We have probably the most significant number of displaced people around the world and, I do agree with Ken, it needs to be non-discriminatory.”

Rishworth is Labor policy incarnate: Wait for the wind, test its direction, then duly respond to the question with rubbery evasiveness. Principle and intellectual substance are things best left out, because conviction in politics is dangerous. Just catch the breeze, because there was nothing in Rishworth’s stance that suggested a revision or change of Labor policy should the Opposition win office in the next election. Australia, however, could “be more generous and… accept more refugees”. 

Grahame Morris, at least, was doing his best to be consistently bolshie in his conservative belief that Australia is a land beyond error — an untarnished paradise irritated by external nuisances. Having been chief of staff to the last long-serving Australian prime minister, John Howard, he presided over the buffering and beefing of Fortress Australia against those threatening upstarts coming to the country by sea.

On accepting refugees, this was God’s honey-drenched country, ditto with migrants:

“I’m getting sick of people like Ken from overseas, giving us curry about what we should do about our refugees, migrants and about our borders. We have 190,000 people come here each year as migrants.”

It’s all propriety for old Morris — of the clean sheets, tea and scones type. If you come from a war-torn state with a dictatorship keen to send you to a historical footnote, apply, but do so carefully, in genteel fashion and with decency. Get in the queue, whatever that is, Aussie-up, do the good thing and come Down Under. 

Enterprising seafaring types need not apply and certainly not at the behest of teenage Indonesian fisher boys who assist, in their problematic way, to uphold a non-discriminatory right to asylum.

As Morris preached:

“There are hundreds of thousands of others who queue up, do the right thing, get processed, who wanted to come here.”

Roth’s answer was sensible enough.

“People who are facing death and persecution don’t have the option to queue. They’ve got to get out.” 

Such observations remain novel to the Canberra policy nuts committed to the administrative straightjacket that is Fortress Australia. To be extreme and reactionary is to be dully acceptable.

Addled Morris then proceeded to demonstrate the precise ignorance that makes such shows hilarious viewing or dreary, suicide-inducing wonder. (Slashed wrists or slashed throat, anyone?) The link between obliterating a country with more interventions, more missiles and more corpses, and encouraging refugees like evacuated bubonic plague did not seem to be made in the answers, despite a brief acknowledgment by Roth.

What was left was a sense of frothy outrage at the evil man in the Kremlin, a cartoonish villain figure who is as popular in Australian circles as Ross River fever. That and the yawning distance between questions and answers.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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