Audience members of ABC’s influential Q&A often speak more sense than the politicians and panelists. Occasionally, an audience member’s question or comment captures the national mood with an eloquent, funny or heartfelt articulation of an issue, injustice or hypocrisy.

In the lead-up to first episode of 2018, here are five times that audience questions stole the show in 2017 and what happened came after.

Octogenarian calls bullshit on euthanasia opponent

Straight-speaking, glamorous Patricia Fellows became an overnight icon with her formidable take-down of the panel’s euthanasia opponent in April.

“I don’t know what you’re on about, darling” she said, using the term repeatedly to belittle Professor Margaret Somerville’s argument. But it was that one expletive, “bullshit”, that had everyone — including her 90-year-old husband Ron, laughing through their surprise and awe.

Patti’s Q&A appearance caused waves for weeks. Her delicious vernacular could be heard again the following night on The Project. She was further glammed up in a photoshoot for Australian Women’s Weekly. Exit International Founder Dr Philip Nitschke awarded Patti and Ron the “Peaceful Pill Prize” — two vouchers for euthanasia drug Nembutal, which is illegal here.

The question, the offers of support and an against-all-odds Press Council win

Fred Thorpe’s question captured the imagination of the public immediately: “Can George Brandis explain why politicians’ expenses are extravagant and go unchecked while I’m having my disability support pension reviewed, despite a 28-year exemplary career as a school teacher?

“I was contacted that night by the ABC who said they’d fielded a number of calls already and they advised against doing interviews, in light of what happened to Duncan Storrar after his appearance on the show,” Thorpe told Crikey.

Thorpe’s phone “ran hot with texts”. “I sometimes think I’m the only socialist on Sydney’s northern beaches, but people were very encouraging, even it they didn’t share my same views about social welfare,” she said.

The kindness went to great lengths: “A dozen people offered to send me money. That was incredibly generous, but I politely refused … But the the offers hugely lifted my spirits.”

Then Piers Ackerman, on the panel that night, dedicated his Sunday Telegraph column to “inferring appalling things about me”, Thorpe said. “I called the show and asked if he was allowed to do that and was told that taking matters to the Press Council wasn’t advised because there wasn’t much chance of winning.”

But Thorpe defied that advice won against all odds. “Julian Burnside QC summed it up best on a later program; he said ‘’Mrs Thorpe has a right to ask a question without having her life ransacked’,” she said.

“I was spat on, told I was riddled with AIDS and a threat to children. And you’ve told me to grow a spine?”

Following Nationals MP Matt Canavan infamously telling the “delicate little flowers” of the postal survey on same-sex marriage to “grow a spine”, Gordon Smith shared his harrowing experience of homophobic bullying as Canavan squirmed in his seat.

 His question was a killer punch: Isn’t the role of leadership to support society’s most vulnerable, rather than kick them while they’re down?

Defending his comment that Westpac “attempted same-sex blackmail” through their support of the Yes vote, Canavan kept digging: “Westpac accused people who support traditional marriage of causing 3,000 suicides when last year there was only 2,800 suicides.”

“Only” 2,800 suicides. That’s alright then.

“His response was riddled with misconceptions”: rattling the Prime Minister on live TV

“I’m a defence lawyer, so I’m used to someone disagreeing with me. On this occasion it just happened to be the Prime Minister” says Teela Reid who asked the PM why he won’t respect Indigenous Australians’ desire for a First Nations Voice and take it to a referendum in a heated exchange on a recent train-wreck appearance for the PM.

As he attempted to mansplain Aboriginal affairs, Reid stood her ground, calling for a “leader with courage” who listens to Indigenous people: “In the moment, I felt confident in my worth as a proud First Nations woman and my knowledge of the process behind the Uluru Statement,” she told Crikey.

Media offers rolled in following her appearance: “I got invited on Triple J Hack the next day as a guest alongside Senator Patrick Dodson. I was also contacted by NITV to appear on their special coverage of January 26, known by many as Invasion Day and also referred to as Australia Day. I’m looking forward to that discussion.”

Tears and fears: asking heartfelt questions in the face of right wing bias

When IPA policy director Simon Breheny said he’d rather talk about Trump’s US$1.5 trillion tax package, he flippantly dismissed the human cost of Trump’s Islamophobic tweets, and the topic of Zahra Bilal’s question.

Through tears, her moving response juxtaposed with his supercilious attitude and gave the show some much-needed humanity.

 “It’s definitely a struggle when you’re living in a society and you think you’re welcomed…and you hear international people who are supposed to speak up about you – it’s difficult to have to justify yourself to the people you thought were standing behind you,” Bilal told Crikey.

“After Q&A, I was overwhelmed by the support and warmth from social media,” she said. “My sisters and I are really proud of how my question sparked important conversations about the rhetoric around Muslims, with people across Australia taking to social media to share similar stories. But, we also realised the strength of Australia’s multiculturalism, and how distinct it is from anywhere else in the world – particularly the USA.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey