Monstrous interruptions

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, May 27, 2014


IN the movie Godzilla, mankind’s punishment for upsetting the balance of nature is meted out by a hideous, gargantuan monster on a primeval mission of retribution. Tony Abbott’s comeuppance for disrupting the politically correct equilibrium of Australian cultural life is administered by the ABC.

It is an ugly sight on or off the screen. The two monstrous hulks have grown meaner over the years, and neither will be deflected from their vengeful path by reason and persuasion.

The ABC’s post-war chairman Richard Boyer would hardly recognise the beast; it is hardly the “impartial clearing house for our ideas” he imagined it might grow up to become. Instead it behaves like a zealous inquisition squad with the self-appointed task of punishing heretics. The art of conducting a dispassionate policy discussion has disappeared almost completely from its repertoire.

So if the PM wants to improve his “messaging”, as the commentators endlessly insist he should, he first has to survive encounters with the likes of Jon Faine, who thinks he is a political coward. We know that because Faine told him so last week to his face, and then told him so again, to make sure.

It’s only a guess, but there must have been a stuff-up with the delivery of budget papers to the ABC. It appears Faine was not able to study them as closely as he would have liked. Trouper that he is, he gave it his best shot: “It’s a drastic turnaround for those who are being asked to pick up the pieces; for the pensioners, for the disability pensioners and aged pensioners, for those who are going to have to pay every time they take the kids to the doctor, for people who are paying more for fuel.” Up to a point, Lord Copper. The PM tried patiently to explain the difference between increasing pensions in line with inflation (which the government will do) and not increasing them at all (which it won’t).

PM: “Pensions will keep going up under the Coalition. As for the disability pension …”

Faine: “Do you mind if I interrupt? I don’t want to go through these one by one …”

Go ahead, Jon. Chip in whenever you like. It’s only Abbott, after all, it’s not like he’s the prime minister or something. I mean, if it were Julia Gillard in the studio …

Naturally, when Gillard turned up to sell Wayne Swan’s excellent budget this time last year, Faine was on his best behaviour.

Gillard: “We haven’t got a different view so there’s nothing to argue about here.”

Host: “No, I’m not looking for an argument. I’m looking for an insight into the, whether or not — I know there is …”

Gillard: “I’m absolutely agreeing with you, 100 per cent agreeing with you.

We understand Faine’s partisan fervour because, given the suburb he inhabits, he probably can’t help it. We’ll even put up with his unfamiliarity with the finer points of economics and assume that when he accuses the PM of “cherry-picking” figures (twice, incidentally), he stayed late up the night before casting his forensic eye over the budget tables. But what drives you nuts about a Faine interview with anyone to the Right of Bob Brown is his constant interruptions. Perhaps ­Abbott just caught him in a particularly talkative mood, but Faine intervened 37 times in the course of the interview, compared to 21 when Gillard was in the chair.

No wonder Abbott winked at Faine to try to get his attention. He could hardly get a word in edgeways, judging from the transcript. Faine allowed the PM to speak for 57 per cent of the time. Gillard, on the other hand, was allowed to prattle away for 80 per cent of the interview. Not that she came away completely unscathed. There was the obligatory question of same-sex marriage, an issue on which her mind had not changed, prompting Faine to give her a stern ticking off: “Your progressive credentials yet again then are not measuring up.”

What Gloria from Warburton made of it all is anybody’s guess, because Gillard was not taking calls that day. Facing unsolicited questions from the public is a dangerous game on the ABC, which has an appalling record of screening out activists. Indeed some say they are actually encouraged to join the Q&A audience, although that sounds unlikely. Why ask Socialist Alternative to disrupt the discussion when Tony Jones seems to manage pretty well by himself?

Here’s Joe Hockey trying to explain the Medicare co-payment to Jones, who seems to have been equally badly served by the budget paper distribution process. “In 1991,” Hockey began, “Australians visited the doctor on average four times a year …” Jones seemed to sense that Hockey was about to make a salient point, so naturally he was obliged to stop him.

Jones: “But can I just …”

Hockey: “Now, doctors — now, Australians …”

Jones: “Can I — can I interrupt your flow?”

Hockey: “ … visit doctors, on average, 11 times a year.”

Jones: “That’s a very interesting point you raise, Treasurer. Are you talking about actual GP visits? Or are you including other items billable to Medicare? Anyway, do go on …”

(That exchange comes from the official ABC transcript, except for the last bit which, sadly, was made up.)

Q&A started with great promise seven years ago, but in recent years has become a caricature of a discussion program. The BBC show from which it was copied,Question Time, shows it does not have to be this way. Firm and yet ever courteous and polite, its host David Dimbleby insists on discipline and decorum from the panel, and the audience responds in turn.

It will be consolation to Jones and his producers to know that they have succeeded in splitting the Right in half. On one side there are those who, out of a sense of civic duty, are prepared to brave the stacked panel, discourteous host and a crowd that thinks it’s been invited to watch the punishment of a ­medieval witch. On the other side there is a growing group of politicians and commentators who do not regard a slice of cold pizza and a warm beer in the green room as sufficient recompense for watching your knuckles turn white for an hour, clinging to a ducking stool on national television.

Does it matter? Probably not. Abbott has already demonstrated that the ABC world view is not impregnable. His policies on border protection, the carbon tax, the mining tax, gay marriage, renewable energy, preventive health, school and hospital funding and a whole lot more were considered “totally inappropriate” by his cultural opponents. Yet he won the election anyway.

Now there’s a good topic for Faine’s next The Conversation Hour.