I created Q&A because I wanted to give Australians a way of holding politicians to account | Television & radio
I came up with the idea for Q&A by not watching TV.
2007 was all about the e-democracy movement, emerging social media and web 2.0. New online tools of the British democracy innovator MySociety helped people write to their MP, follow parliamentary votes or simply get their street fixed. My plan was to build a new platform for Australian citizens to hold our politicians to account. My working title for Q&A was “On the Spot”.
It was a project that suited the political optimism of 2007. Remember the 2020 summit? Remember when we were tackling the greatest moral challenge of our time? Remember when politicians from Queensland were “here to help”?
To me, Q&A has always been more about creating a live event than producing a television show. Sure, we are broadcasting, and there were lessons to learn from pioneering formats like the ABC’s Monday Conference and the BBC’s Question Time, but the focus was always creating an engaging experience that people want to be involved in. The Q&A audience aren’t warm props for the cutaway shots – they’re active participants. And the program has to be live so that viewers can be part of the interaction too.
In the early years Q&A enjoyed the advantage of surprise. The focus of citizen questioners didn’t match the agenda set by the political minders and the press gallery. Voters got the chance to push the issues that mattered to them – such as disability, discrimination and taxation – on to the political stage.
Politicians who’d once been confined to the talking points of their portfolio were invited to range far and wide, and as PJ Keating might say, “flip the switch to vaudeville”.
Take Tony Abbott.
In 2008 the then member for Warringah was Q&A’s most enthusiastic panellist. He came on our first panel and, in fact, offered to appear on Q&A every week if we’d have him. While the rest of the Coalition were licking their wounds after Kevin Rudd’s 2007 landslide win, Abbott was focused on the future: the only way to get out of opposition, he explained, was to “fight your way out”.
But the former Oxford boxer delivered his jabs with self-deprecation. He was an engaging debater willing to listen to others and deliver his arguments with charm. Left-leaning viewers told me with surprise that as they watched Tony Abbott on Q&A, they found him “kind of hot”.
Abbott was the first to realise the possibility of using a lively forum like Q&A to redefine his public profile. He even began negotiations for his leadership manifesto Battlelines in the Q&A greenroom.
At the end of that first year, with the Liberal party flailing, I confided to a seasoned Canberra insider that I thought Abbott’s performances on Q&A showed his leadership potential. “The Mad Monk?” The response was incredulous. Yet a year later, there he was.
But when Abbott as opposition leader got his chance for a one-man show, Q&A also exposed his limitations.
Facing an hour of television and 20 unseen questions on climate change, economic stimulus, disability, asylum seekers (“What would Jesus do?”), funding cuts, the republic, internet filters, marriage equality and paedophile priests is a challenge. Abbott didn’t have the mastery of detail to do it well. He began to retrace his arguments and his talking points. An hour alone with Abbott on Q&A felt like forever.
Geoff, a Liberal-voting Vietnam veteran turned plumber from western Sydney, challenged Abbott on his policy on marriage equality and his discomfort with gay men like Geoff’s son. Abbott never appeared on Q&A again.
Later, when Abbott was PM, Zaky Mallah asked a question on Q&A. Abbott and his office (with a baying Murdoch press) went berserk, banning government MPs from appearing on Q&A and labelling the Q&A audience a “lefty lynch mob”.
Scott Morrison has followed his lead. In the friendly interviews he prefers with shock jocks, he’s made his disdain for Q&A clear, and consistently refused to appear since taking over as prime minister. Why answer questions from an unfriendly crowd?
The answer should be obvious: it’s a democracy, mate. You’re supposed to govern for everyone and that means answering their questions – even the difficult ones.
Q&A succeeded because it created an opportunity that hadn’t existed for ordinary Australians to challenge our politicians directly and measure their responses.
We brought together Australian citizens from diverse political and cultural backgrounds to discuss the direction of the nation. There’s been plenty of bickering along the way about what should be debated and who should and shouldn’t get to speak (including, of course, “why not me?”).
Over the 12 years since Q&A started, social media has pushed into the national debate. In 2009 when we pioneered onscreen tweets, people joined Twitter to take part in #QandA. Now the platform is a political arena in its own right.
But television – mass broadcast media – still delivers something that social media can’t. A common experience that everyone can share, rather than an echo chamber reinforcement of our own narrow views.
After 12 years at Q&A my faith in the power of reasoned discussion to change minds and build a consensus has taken a battering, but I can’t identify any pathway forward that isn’t built on bringing together people with divergent views to listen, debate and discuss.
Perhaps after the hiding he’s received since he returned from Hawaii Morrison will finally see the point in going on Q&A again. Maybe he’ll hope the change of host or the change of executive producer will make it easier.
In truth, when Q&A is doing its job, the personnel don’t matter. They’re just there to spread the net wide. It’s the power and passion of the audience that makes Q&A work, whether it’s Geoff the plumber, Ricci (“How can I ‘have a go to get a go’?”) Bartels, or even Zaky Mallah.
If Q&A is working, the difficult uncomfortable questions for our politicians will keep on coming. Perhaps eventually the PM will realise that you don’t build a nation with photo ops and involuntary handshakes.
Australia has some questions for you, Scott. Don’t turn your back.