Tackling the #qanda-ry

A truly reprehensible thing happened on Q&A this week and we really do need to talk about it. I refer, of course, to the moment on Thursday when a post-operative transwoman was told that she had deliberately mutilated her genitals in having a procedure that went against all concepts of “good medicine”. Julia Doulman parried that question with grace and a not insignificant amount of bluntness; “I’d rather have twisted mutilated genitals than a bullet through my head or lie on a railway line.” I did not hear a single minister in this government criticize that questioner for exercising a right to say something so rude to another human being.

On the eighth of June, a member of the audience in Studio 22 asked whether the Human Rights Commission, a necessary independent body that oversees whether or not an Australian government perpetrates human rights abuses, and one that the government regularly demonises, should be disbanded. Another asked what protections she would receive were it the case that she should be asked to create wedding invitations for a same-sex couple and wished to refuse to do so on religious grounds. An audience member on the 23rd of March asserted that allowing foreign ownership in this country was “selling ourselves down the river”. A video question on the 27th of April asserted that binding on marriage equality would “lose votes for the Labor party”. Those examples are just limited to the last three months.

Today Immigration Minister Peter Dutton referred to the audience and panel of Q&A as “stacked”, in response to comments made by convicted criminal Zaky Mallah on Monday night’s edition of the program. This was only one of the latest in a series of condemnations by the government of the program – Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the Prime Minister, derided the program for having little editorial oversight. Well, Mr. Turnbull did. The Prime Minister said something very different, which I’ll return to in a moment. But, and I don’t know that I’ve said this often and I doubt that I’ll say it again, I do agree with Peter Dutton.

The audience of Q&A, its panel, and its points of discussion, are regularly stacked. This is done so as to inflame public opinion and provoke conversations on difficult topics. In an episode of the program exclusively featuring Joe Hockey, 50% of the audience declared support for either the ALP or the Greens. The questions are deliberately selected to challenge the panelists – and the ones that are usually attacked by the government involve panelists from the government. That is, however, the function of having a program like Q&A – to challenge views and opinions, particularly those held by the sitting government.

Zaky Mallah’s comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. They are being used, however, as a political tool by a government that has displayed an alarming lack of tolerance for any sort of dissent. In the last budget, millions of dollars worth of funding was redirected away from the independent Australia Council for the Arts and placed directly in fund controlled by the Arts Minister. Funding was cut for the ABC and the SBS (despite election promises that this would not be the case), and the Prime Minister regularly criticises the public broadcaster as not “on Team Australia” whenever it dares contradict the government’s policies. The only praise he could find within himself to give the ABC was to congratulate it on its airing of The Killing Season, which is admittedly compelling, but the PM and I probably think so for different reasons. The government’s campaign against Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs is ceaseless and a disturbing series of political attacks against an independent official attempting to highlight human rights abuses.

Q&A made an error of judgement by allowing Zaky Mallah a platform on Monday night – but that does not mean that its necessity as a part of the Australian democratic system should be understated. I can think of few developed democracies where members of the government are put in a position to be so directly accountable to the everyday citizen. The government clearly only has issues with the instances where the program allows direct challenge to their political positions; by all other accounts, they rarely deign even to watch it.

The last time the Prime Minister was on Q&A was the 27th of August, 2009. At the time, not even Leader of the Opposition, he said this: “I think honesty is terrific, but there are some things that you have no right to be honest about.” Suggestions today have called for tighter screenings of audience members and a more controlled studio audience – which all sounds very democratic indeed. We have need of programs like Q&A, programs that actively encourage us to critically engage with government policy and ask ourselves questions about its legitimacy, more than ever under this government.

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