What a week for political podcasting in Australia. After the “blink and you’d mercifully miss it” cycle of the announcement-backlash-cancellation of Jessica Rowe’s chummy chat with Pauline Hanson, we now get the Josh Frydenberg podcast. It’s an attempt, we’re told, to uncover “who our treasurer is, what he does, and why his role is one of the most challenging in our country today”.
Host Sarah Grynberg’s primary project (her “mission”, as it says on her tasteful and spare website) is talking to people who “cultivate greatness” — with the aim of subsequently unlocking it in listeners. So fresh from interviewing Matthew McConaughey, she sat down with the treasurer to get answers to “the important questions, the ones often not asked in the media”. Questions like: “What are the core values your parents instilled in you and your sister?”, “How do you find time to be so responsive to the needs of your constituents?” and “What’s it like having all of Australia’s people’s lives on your shoulders?”
Of course, in a way it’s pointless to harp on about what a softball hagiography this is — it’s not purporting to be much else; it’s just doing what it says on the tin. And certainly if you have to sit through this kind of thing, Frydenberg isn’t the worst company; he’s got some personal charm and makes the early stuff — the loving parents, the shot at being a tennis pro, the uni days — pass agreeably enough.
And Grynberg does her job, which is to ask questions florid enough that Frydenberg is able to talk himself up while still seeming relatively modest.
They set the tone with the first question. Aked what it’s like having “one of the most challenging jobs in Australia”, Frydenberg is able to preface his answer by modestly comparing himself with the approved politician’s everyday heroes: frontline health workers and the armed forces. Join us next month when we ask Josh for his three dream dinner party guests. Spoiler alert: one of them may be Nelson Mandela.
The closest we get to revelation is that Frydenberg explicitly didn’t believe the Coalition would win the 2019 election, but even that’s a view that he shared with most of the country.
And to his credit, he stops short — only just — of continuing his cynical attacks on the state government in Victoria, voicing his concern for the people of the state living through the world’s longest lockdown and leaving it at that.
But even so, when he says his chief regret is that “governments weren’t more creative about keeping kids in the classroom”, it immediately occurs that he can only pick a regret that’s outside his own government’s responsibilities and speak gravely about mental health because he knows there won’t be any follow-up questions about vaccine supply and rollout or the federal government cutting support to job seekers. In this context, his crack about how the state governments make announcements and the feds get stuck with the bill lands as clangingly ungracious.
Which is always the risk with uncritical vanity projects like this — it tends to lure the subject into overplaying their hand. When Grynberg asks about the many small businesses that told her about the personal contact they’d received from the treasurer during the pandemic-induced recession (real journalistic boon for Grynberg to have tracked those random businesses down, I must say…), it gives Frydenberg the chance to tell us that he intervened personally to get rent relief for a single mum and small business owner who was worried about losing her livelihood. Which all sounds good, until you realise he’s bragging about systemic problems being fixed one person at a time.
The tone of the show is probably summed up best by the following exchange: Frydenberg recalls with some amusement recently rewatching the ABC coverage of the 2019 election, watching the ALP panellists shrink from their initial enthusiasm and excitement to the horrifying realisation that they weren’t going to make it.
Grynberg says in the same reverent tone she takes throughout: “What a beautiful, beautiful moment.”