Inside Story

Last supper?

In its attempt to be light-hearted, Kitchen Cabinet has steered into dangerous waters

Jane Goodall Television 24 August 2023 1366 words

Time to draw a line? Opposition leader Peter Dutton dining with Annabel Crabb. ABC

“What big teeth you have, grandma!” We all know what comes next. And so does Annabel Crabb, dressed in a sweet fifties frock with a basket on her arm, as she arrives at the front door of some smiling politician for another episode of Kitchen Cabinet, now embarking on its seventh season.

The Red Riding Hood persona is surely tongue in cheek, but Crabb is taking a real risk by evoking a fairytale figure who proved terminally naive: quite literally, since she was swallowed alive. Whether or not there’s a wolf in the house, Crabb can expect savage attacks in the surrounding media environment.

In another reversal of traditional symbolism, rather than discovering a wolf in the guise of a trusted human, she is about to use a cheerful domestic setting to reveal the human who, in political guise, may have inspired fear and loathing. “Every single politician we elect has a backstory that dictates the way they behave in politics, and whether you love or loathe them, it’s always worth knowing that story,” she says.

Given the temperature of responses to the program, that has proved a too-easy assumption. This week’s episode with opposition leader Peter Dutton showed, not for the first time, that Crabb’s enterprise serves only to inflame the ferocity. For Charlie Lewis, writing in Crikey, the “cosy and humanising profiles of people responsible for variously sized portions of national shame” come across as “a prank on everyone involved.”

Amy McQuire’s excoriating review in New Matilda, prompted by the season five episode featuring Scott Morrison, was circulating again on social media in the lead-up to the Dutton appearance. McQuire calls the program “ridiculous, sickening,” “junk food journalism.”

The chorus on Twitter, where #KitchenCabinet has been trending since the start of the new season, has been virulent. A photoshopped image shows Crabb lunching with Adolf Hitler, whom she describes as “good company” and “funnier than I was expecting.” Other posts focus on those who have suffered the consequences of Dutton’s political decisions: the Biloela children, Reza Barati and others held in long-term detention, communities in Melbourne vilified in response to his “African gangs” claims.

These and other highly charged issues, including Dutton’s current campaign for the No vote on the Voice, are raised over a lunch of chowder cooked by the opposition leader in the kitchen of his beautiful old Queenslander house. He seems to take Crabb’s insistence that some of his public remarks are straight-out racism in his stride, without seeming riled, excessively defensive or especially embarrassed.

Crabb encourages him to talk about his life before politics, including the experience of attending violent crime scenes as a police officer. In answer to Crabb’s suggestion that he might suffer from PTSD, he says that probably most police officers do. That exchange triggered his antagonists, who saw it as a bid for sympathy put forward by Dutton himself.

Distortions like that are par for the course on social media, where criticisms of programs and presenters often take the form of personal abuse. The problem has been serious enough for Leigh Sales, Stan Grant and Hamish Macdonald to leave political roles at the ABC, and has led to the broadcaster’s recent decision to withdraw its program accounts from Twitter.

While the personal abuse is intolerable, the reactive high dudgeon is often too sweeping. Professional journalists, especially if they have a television profile, are prone to characterising social media users as a rabid species, demented by a diet of disinformation and immune to reason or civility. But something of vital importance gets missed: behind the apparent savagery lies an essentially human response that warrants serious attention. Seen collectively, the attacks on Kitchen Cabinet are not in the vein of criticism or argument but are manifestations of a visceral moral outrage.

This is what Crabb in her smiling Red Riding Hood persona has failed to take account of. “Sometimes people who disagree with each other, and even people who agree with each other on some things, do not have conversations with each other,” she says. “And I think that’s madness.” Is it? Suggesting that the reaction reflects a pathological refusal to have conversations across lines of disagreement is missing the point by a country mile.

“The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”: the poet William Blake might not have written that line if he’d been around in the age of social media, but it remains a succinct and unforgettable evocation of wrath as a moral force, and one that may be collectively generated. Blake himself wrote under its influence in response to the social cruelties and political degeneracies of the industrial revolution.

We in Australia may no longer send children down mines or up chimneys, but we do put them into solitary confinement, isolate them in island compounds, and subject their parents to prolonged and abject misery. As we’ve learned from the robodebt debacle, we drive people to suicide through government-initiated programs of extortion. We create pariah communities through the racial stereotyping that is sometimes explicitly promoted by elected politicians.

Is it really so incomprehensible that many people take offence at being vicariously invited by the national broadcaster to have a chatty meal with those seen as instrumental in perpetuating these kinds of torments? Or if we do decide to spend half an hour in this way, and we find the company genial and good-humoured, and the host quite a decent bloke, where does this leave us?

Kitchen Cabinet started out as an experiment in genre-crossing: equal parts reality TV, chat show, cooking program (the dessert recipes are posted on the ABC site) and political inquisition. Crabb’s deliberately ingenuous persona was presumably intended to push the dial to the lighter end of the spectrum, but she was an experienced enough journalist to know how to introduce more serious registers as the conversation rolled along.

Guests have been chosen from across the political spectrum, with a predominance of women, and they do tend to open up in unexpected ways, offering new perspectives on the personalities and motivations of those in power. But personal trust in politics is a high-risk investment.

In season one, lunch with National Party senator Nigel Scullion, Indigenous affairs minister at the time, involved a trip up river in the Northern Territory to catch crab and giant prawns that he cooked on a makeshift barbecue. “How do you fit into the Senate?” Crabb asked. The Australian people shouldn’t be represented in parliament just by lawyers, he responded; there should be tradies and fishermen too.

He sounded like a good bloke. Referring to the Warramirri people as “my mob,” he talked of his responsibility for finding better ways to address disadvantage in Indigenous communities. Barnaby Joyce, too, sounded like a good bloke when he weighed in against “back-pocket politics” and “the clever club” of lobbyists, mining companies and foreign investors in season two.

Five years later Scullion was in hot water with allegations he’d given Indigenous funding to his own former fishing-industry lobby group, and Barnaby Joyce had resigned as leader of the Nationals over an affair with a former staffer, with attendant allegations of nepotism over the appointment of his new partner to an unadvertised position. In retrospect, the good bloke talk does seem rather… disingenuous.

Many of the other guests on the program no doubt really are good people who maintain ethical standards and principled positions in situations of evolving complexity. But it would be impossible to draw a line between those who should and should not be featured in this pseudo-innocent format. Might the best thing therefore be to draw a line under it? There was, after all, a seven-year gap between this season and the last.

True, we’d have missed out on engagements with some of our most interesting and dynamic female politicians: Dai Le, Linda Burney, Anika Wells, Lidia Thorpe. The diversity of the current parliament, according to Crabb, was the compelling case for another season. Perhaps, though, it’s a sign of a lack of new ideas at the ABC, and a compelling case for a different kind of program. •