hamish macdonald
Q&A host Hamish Macdonald (Image: ABC)

Poor Hamish Macdonald. It is a universal truth in media that journalists can’t advertise their new program without appearing to be a bit of a poseur.

It’s impossible to avoid. So sympathies for the new Q&A host as he has dutifully trotted all over the ABC to promote the revamped panel discussion as a kind of national “R U OK?” conversation.

Last night’s debut was quite a departure for a program that since 2008 has often hinged on stunt casting and divisive moments — Zaky Mallah, Mona Eltahawy — in the hope of generating as many provocative headlines as possible.

It was a very different Monday night for all of Aunty, with fiercely independent programs Four Corners, Media Watch and Q&A all themed around bushfires, and Macdonald introducing all three. Q&A had hurriedly relocated to Queanbeyan, NSW, from Bega when local fires looked to be too hazardous.

As program creator Peter McEvoy, who departed last year, wrote in The Guardian: “The Q&A audience aren’t warm props for the cutaway shots — they’re active participants.”

But Macdonald asked a lot of questions on his first night. In fact he dominated proceedings. Has there even been a more subdued audience? Some looked broken.

It was etched on their strained faces, a weariness behind the eyes. Sometimes they disappeared entirely, as men and women buried their faces in their hands.  

McEvoy set up Q&A because he wanted those people to ask politicians tough questions and make them squirm. The program needs a strong host to control the audience and the panel. Macdonald did this admirably, as did previous host Tony Jones, though both exhibit less control over their own questions. 

Meanwhile, Monday night’s program produced some of the most heartfelt utterances by a politician in political history — and also one of the silliest.

State MP for Bega, Liberal minister Andrew Constance, appeared a broken man propelled by his duty to serve. It is rare for a politician to speak with such candour.

“We’re expending so much energy not being united,” he said.

An admirable thought, but this being Q&A you could set your watch to the likelihood of a member of the government getting hammered and heckled for their stance on climate change.

On Monday night it was at 10.24pm when Liberal Senator Jim Molan found himself at the receiving end of the program’s proud tradition of putting politicians on the spot. Molan’s response that he’s “not relying on evidence” to the question of whether humans are causing climate change drew jeers.

But then Macdonald did something unusual.

After climate scientist Michael Mann sledged Molan (“You should keep an open mind, but not so open your brains will fall out”) the host reprimanded him for getting too personal.

MacDonald pointed out that the government had won multiple elections with such climate policies, which therefore meant the Australian public supported them. Mann had no explanation.

Molan stole the headlines, but the legacy of the program will be the words of Constance.

Watching his Q&A debut, you can see why ABC executives have long pursued Macdonald for his energy, curiosity and even-handedness. At one point they attempted to draft him into becoming executive producer of 7.30.

New executive producer Erin Vincent and ABC bosses want engagement to be front and centre of the program. While Tony Jones ran proceedings from behind his desk, Macdonald will present parts of the program from within the audience. Last night he even flipped the premise of the show and questioned a trauma counsellor in the audience.  

It was an admirable showcase. But if you take too much oxygen from the audience, well, you end up with Lateline.

So what does success look like?

The program is continually attacked as too left leaning (although a formal review by the ABC deemed otherwise). Pertinent criticisms are that it doesn’t feature enough women, and is far too Sydney-centric.

Macdonald will succeed in bringing a different audience to the ABC. But can he entice back those who used to be regular viewers but switched off?  

The true test will be whether Macdonald is able to charm Scott Morrison into lifting a self-imposed ban on the program that stretches back to 2012.

ABC executives and viewers will be pleased with the return of Q&A. It is very hard to imagine the ABC, or indeed political discourse, without it.

But spare a thought for the studio audience. They won’t be as good as the host at asking questions — which is precisely the point.