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The grilling season

Television | Monday night’s ABC interviews showed how TV can be dangerous for politicians in unexpected ways, writes Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall 23 September 2015 1200 words

Straight and steady: Bill Shorten on Q&A on Monday night.

When Bill Shorten took the chair for a solo Q&A at Ballarat on Monday night, the cards were stacked against him. Tony Jones, at his most adversarial throughout, introduced the program with a quotation from David Marr’s recently published Quarterly Essay, Faction Man, which described Shorten as “a consummate backroom party man who’s risen to the top without really being tested by the Australian voters.”

The first questioner cut to the chase. A drover’s dog could have won an election against Tony Abbott, he said. Would Shorten acknowledge that Malcolm Turnbull has just made his job a lot harder and his leadership more insecure? “I’m not going to be mealy-mouthed about this,” said Shorten. “I think it is a good thing for this country that Tony Abbott is no longer prime minister.” That got a round of applause, and Shorten’s follow-up statement on his hopes for a better quality of debate went down well enough, but the atmosphere was still distinctly edgy.

A line on the twitter feed said “Welcome to the Bill Grill” as the next questioner launched in. “Mr Shorten, you were famous for your role in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco, flipping allegiance from prime minister to prime minister.” Jones seemed concerned to ensure the point hit home, and turned up the heat with a follow-up question. “Do you think people are confused about you and your loyalty?” he asked, as the twitter feed warned, “Shorten really needs to knock it out of the ballpark.”

Complaints that Australian politics has become a blood sport are now echoing among international media commentators, but the focus is on the spectacle of assassination, rather than its preconditions. When the urge to tear down a party leader becomes overwhelming, what gives rise to it? As Shorten’s response to the second questioner spelled out, those who instigate the change may be trying to deal with a situation that has somehow got beyond their control. Hostile press coverage leads to falling opinion polls. Then come the leaks, the exposure of hidden divisions; senior colleagues begin to conspire. The impact of bad polls is reinforced by their constant media coverage. And so the vicious circle turns, until the press gallery talks of nothing but when the leader will be knocked off, poll panic sets in among the backbenchers and the momentum becomes unstoppable.

The opening minutes of this week’s Q&A carried a distinct aura of wolves circling. With another killing season under way, Shorten may be next for the chop. It was unnerving to watch, until Shorten managed to take control and steer the situation into calmer waters. If he was unnerved himself, he didn’t show it. He talked straight, paced himself steadily, was firm in handling the constant undermining from Jones, and teased the real issues out of questions that were essentially framed to insult. By the time he was halfway through, camera shots of the audience were providing evidence of real attentiveness and concentration.

Did he knock it out of the ballpark? No. That’s not his style and, as even his keenest backers would surely concede, style is not really one of Bill Shorten’s attributes. What he did do was provide a range of specific and substantive responses on policy. One questioner asked where he would be prepared to offer cooperation with the government “for the good of the nation.” He named four areas: science and technology, domestic violence, climate change and marriage equality. That was a deft set of choices. On the first two, Turnbull is showing – or likely to show – a willingness to be more proactive. On climate change and marriage equality, Turnbull is on the back foot and can be made to look like the renegade.

There were several questions about union corruption and the matters under investigation at the royal commission, with Jones seemingly determined to pursue an inquisition of his own. But these exchanges showed Shorten at his strongest. Having answered 900 questions in the commission hearings, he’d had plenty of practice, and was ready with chapter and verse about negotiating procedures, the legislation surrounding them and their importance in securing good conditions. He cited the current problems at 7-Eleven as an instance of how wrong things can still go for workers. Would he “immediately resign” in the event of an adverse finding from the commissioner? Here he responded with a stinging critique of the motives behind the commission’s establishment, and turned to the wider issues of workplace relations. “I’m very happy with the record I have – we’ve spoken about a couple of agreements. I signed off on 700 agreements. I stand by my record.”

The Bill Grill was a stark contrast to the charm offensive Malcolm Turnbull encountered on 7.30 earlier in the evening. He and Leigh Sales laughed companionably about the absurdity of opinion polls before she cued him in to speak about the “values and core beliefs” of his government. Well, it was all about free markets, free individuals, lean government, economic growth, more avenues for Australian services and exports… And it was all very vague. Turnbull likes the words “confidence” and “leadership.” The economy needs confidence. And leadership. But in response to a specific question about tax reform, he is “not going to rule things in or rule things out.” That’s a Canberra game, apparently. Sales didn’t press him.

Questions on defence and foreign policy and on climate change were pursued with all the intensity of an after-work yarn over a beer. Then they got to the important stuff, about Turnbull himself. What is he wiser about? “I feel more confident,” he said, “but not in an ebullient way. I just feel quietly confident and settled.”

No doubt future interviews will be more testing but, curiously, the ones that seem easy can be more revealing. Television is a medium politicians cannot afford to trust. It exposes them in ways they don’t anticipate. Given full rein to be urbane and expansive, confident and comfortable, Turnbull actually comes across as wishy-washy and glib. Shorten, who behaves like an over-programmed automaton much of the time, showed that when he’s really up against it and has to think on his feet he knows what he’s talking about. The future contest between these two could shape up as one of style versus substance, and may not play out at all as members of the press gallery are predicting.

The approaches of Leigh Sales and Tony Jones were so polarised as to be, each in their own way, embarrassing. It’s not a case of political bias exactly, but rather a demonstration of how politicians move in and out of favour with the media, and how leading television journalists can become caught up in a political soap opera of their own making. •

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21 September 2015

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