Walking into Kevin Rudd’s interview with Bob Katter at the Sydney Writers’ Festival yesterday afternoon, I was a little confused. Along with the grey army you normally get at these events, there was a gaggle of good-looking youngsters in skinny jeans — were they in the wrong place?

It wasn’t until question time that the penny dropped. They were all there to ask Katter about the ads he ran in the recent Queensland election campaign, condemning gay marriage.

For most of the talk, Kevin, Katter’s friend for 20 years, gave him an easy ride, allowing him to witter on endlessly about the history of Cloncurry, an obscure Queensland premier called “Red Ted” Theodore and a subject that bores the pants off most people: the DLP split.

However, in the last five minutes, Rudd finally pounced, bringing up the controversial ad. Katter replied that he had not seen it before it went to air, which he now regretted. Broadcasting the ads was a “simple example of insensitivity” and a “crowning glory of all mistakes”, he said.

“This was a political mistake of major proportions,” he intoned. “I let the ad go and I suppose in that sense that will be one of the regrets I’ll carry for the rest of my days.”

During question time, when he copped a bit of flak, Bob showed why he is the natural heir to the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Like the former Queensland premier, he is a master of bluster and obfuscation when asked a hard question. He also has a folksy, hillbillyesque demeanour that makes you question whether he is either two tinnies short of a slab, or very, very smart.

“Look,” he snapped at one young woman, who asked about gay marriage. “I’m really not going to take any more questions on it because I’m very short-tempered.”

Bob is more concerned about bats. In his 40 years as a state and federal MP, only one person had raised the issue of gay marriage, he said, compared with “maybe 10,000” who were concerned about flying foxes. “You are preoccupied with some little thing that comes in from America,” he said, at which point several members of the audience started booing and then walking out.

Bob and Kevin were not the only politicians at the festival. Earlier in the week, former NSW minister Frank Sartor appeared, in conversation with former Rudd staffer Lachlan Harris. Frank is from the great “I told them so” and  the (very popular) “it’s all Paul Howes’ fault” school of political revisionism, penning a book called The Fog on the Hill, about what was wrong with the last NSW state Labor government.

The former planning minister said that unions should no longer control the party: “Thirty years ago, the Labor movement had a lot of opinions about things other than politics but in the professional union movement, that has changed. Unions have become patrons and protectors and part of the process of the ALP.

“The Labor machine became more powerful, more autonomous and by 2003 it was preselecting its mates. The machine was poll-driven and over-empowered itself. At the same time, caucus was full of people who owed their allegiance to Tripodi and Obeid; they were not there on merit.

“Labor needs to put good government at the heart of everything it does. If it is going to fix the corrosion in the party it has to fix the culture and remove the power of a clique to dominate. They need to change preselections; they need diversity not a monoculture.”

Frank said that when he told John Richardson that he had to enact substantial change, the NSW opposition leader had been optimistic. “If Nixon can go to China then I can reform the Labor Party,” he said.

Frank ended up by saying that if he won the lottery he would establish a think thank for public policy, with the initial aim of halving the cost of parking fines, which got a huge round of applause from the audience.

On Friday, writer George Megalogenis and historian Geoffrey Blainey had an excellent discussion on the topic, “The Tyranny of Affluence”. George, who has written a great book called The Australian Moment, How We Were Made For These Times, said that both sides of politics are now in a negative feedback loop — “they are both afraid of the electorate and [simultaneously] trying to appease it”.

The two sides had made major policy announcements; WorkChoices and the ETS, and then run away from them, he said.

The political landscape in many countries is now very unstable, George said. In the 2009 Greek elections the two main parties received 80% of the vote, while in the elections held two weeks ago, the two main parties received only 32% of the vote.

Voters now go to the ballot box and say “who is in charge, and how quickly can I punish them? I think we will be flipping governments every other term”. While Australia still had some problems, “I still would not want to be anywhere else.”

On Friday night, opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull was the star of a panel discussion entitled “Can’t Be That Hard”, a quote taken from the PM’s admonishment to the Canberra press gallery to “(not) write crap”.

I enjoyed the discussion between Turnbull, Peter Hartcher, Annabel Crabb, Megalogenis and Harris, moderated by Barrie Cassidy, despite its subsequent description by enfant terrible Antony Loewenstein as “a bunch of old people fellating each other”. Everyone agreed that there were problems with the way politics is currently reported, but could not come up with any easy solutions.

Turnbull said the media and political landscapes had changed in ways which had led to a “profound threat to our democracy”.“Firstly, the digital age has absolutely shattered the model of newspapers,” he said, because when they moved online, they “exchanged print dollars for digital dimes”. Cutting staff was a mistake, he said, because you can’t replace a business with thousands of journalists with “a few tweets”.

In addition, media consumption had become polarised, with fewer people receiving their news from a “fair and balanced” daily bulletin or a newspaper, instead turning to opinion-based columnists, radio shock-jocks and blogs.

Annabel said that the dizzying speed of the media cycle meant that “in the new regime we are madly producing content all the time and this changes the way the news works: A story lasts two hours and then we are looking around for something new. Politicians talk pap because they don’t want to get into trouble, they squirt out reconstituted content like luncheon meat.”

Someone commented that they no longer had time to sit down over a lunch and talk to a politician about policy, to which the slimmed-down Turnbull replied that he never took lunch. “Just because you’ve stopped eating, Malcolm,” Annabel riposted.

George said that the electorate used to be 40% Labor, 40% Liberal and 20% swingers, so the parties only needed to hone their message to the swingers. These numbers have now switched, with more swingers than rusted-on voters, and as a result the politicians had become afraid of the electorate.

“If you know a politician is scared, you can’t respect them. They simply go to the electorate, what can I do not to offend you?” he said.

Asked about leadership, Hartcher said that the Coalition and the ALP had been greatly affected by the adverse public reaction to WorkChoices and the ETS, respectively: “My theory is that that led to an abrogation of leadership and a general panic in the upper echelons of both parties,” he said, “where they lost the confidence to make their case on difficult issues.”

Other highlights of the festival were a session with writer Caroline Overington talking to Gideon Haigh about his excellent book The Office, economist Satyajit Das’ presentations on “The end of Ponzi prosperity” and “The end of trust” and historian Paul Ham’s fascinating talk on the subject of his book, Hiroshima.

ABC presenter and digital native Mark Colvin, on a panel discussion about social media, said that he had largely abandoned Facebook because of its cavalier attitude to privacy. “If you are not paying for the product on the internet, then you are the product,” he said.

In the end, though, I was left with the thoughts of George Megabrain, who said that in his post-journalism career, he was going to become a one-man band fighting the “war on whingeing”. If he starts a political party, I’m joining it.

Peter Fray

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