The ABC describes its program Q&A as “democracy in action”. We cannot be sure that Cleisthenes of Athens would agree. I can’t be sure if you agree, but I did take a straw poll yesterday while preparing to review last night’s episode, and found that six out of seven democratic Crikey readers did not much care to even talk about this show.

Sure, the survey had a sample size of seven, was hasty, and did include my dad. Dad was the only survey respondent who said that he usually watched, “But only because it helps me know what you were angry about last week, Blossom” (Yes, my father calls me “Blossom”. It’s lovely and appropriate. Shut up.)

One interviewee said, “I’ll watch it if I’m a bit sloshed, and fancy yelling at something slightly less fluffy than clouds.” Another reported, “It’s a bit like a mug of warm Ovaltine, but one made with skim milk.” I am not sure what she meant. Perhaps that the contents of Q&A were sleep-inducing and thin.

The thing that seemed to trouble all Crikey respondents was that the program has the appearance of “respectful debate”, but, in fact, permits broadcast of very few new ideas. I, too, feel that it is not “respectful” to us viewers to produce a “debate” that approaches the same topics from the same perspectives every week.

Last night, Q&A could hardly have been more Q&A. Billed as a “debate” and timed more tightly than usual, this episode, which only spoke of same-sex marriage, was boiled down to its noisome essence. Which is to say, it said things that have been already said and said.

Of four panellists, only one would be directly affected by a change to the Marriage Act, which seemed a bit unfair. Then again, what would Q&A be without an obvious injustice to irritate from the outset? Comic actor Magda Szubanski did a fair job as informed activist, but there certainly are LGBTIQ activists better informed. “This isn’t just out of the blue,” said Szubanski of the movement for marriage. “It comes within a historical context.” In fact, the history of LGBTIQ activism in Australia had very little concern with marriage until around 2009. Before that, it was all barely reported kids’ stuff like rights and health and housing. Not all these problems have been addressed, and it is quite wrong for Szubanski to identify marriage as a finale, long awaited.

Still, she has done more serious time as an advocate than compelling curiosity Karina Okotel. As Crikey has reported, this preacher for the No case has emerged from nowhere, aka Melbourne’s leafy south. Apparently, she has experienced great bigotry for her courage. Okotel’s argument is no more complex than those you have previously heard: we should be “free” to vote No. Which we are. Still. Yes voters are unpleasant, and everyone agreed that we should all be pleasant. In the world of Q&A, all social change should be pleasant. Notwithstanding that it never was nor ever could be.

Two Christian clerics spoke. One for Yes, one for No. When either of them tried to say anything interesting, as God’s No man did when he proposed, even if cynically, legal protection for all sorts of partnerships, not just the romantic ones, Tony cut ’em off. The Catholic guy was for Yes, very decent and probably keeps a portrait of our best Pope, Francis, in the presbytery.

Szubanski was tempted into “you’re not the boss of me” rhetoric, but of course, this is a legitimate case to make generally against the plebiscite. Though, she might have thought before demanding of Okotel, “How would you feel if Sri Lankan people were told you can’t be married?”. Okotel was born in Australia.

In short, this was peak Q&A, or would have been only if (a) Cardinal Pell had made an appearance in his fanciest raiment and (b) Paul Capsis had closed the show with a moving torch song, while dressed in a similar outfit.

It is, I decided, precisely because of the program’s dependable nature that it remains popular. Like a lot of formulaic things, including sitcoms with laugh tracks, the appeal of the current affairs panel show lies in its familiar nature. Predictable jokes produce predictable giggles, predictable debates provoke predictable responses. Predictably, no one truly watches. And the serious is made trivial in this old mug, and we can all get some predictable sleep.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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