ACT News

Ian Warden: Peering through Question Time's stale angry fog

Nasty third-rate soap right there on my TV

Intelligence-insulting soap right there on my TV

Stomach-turning soap, all sleaze and slime,

World's worst acting, it's Reps' Question Time.

(Profuse apologies to Skyhooks)

Kept indoors by the searing heat that has made my wholesome outdoorsy hobbies impossible I have found myself turning to a loathsome solitary habit. If I don't stop doing it I will go blind. Tell-tale hair will grow on the hand I am doing it with. Yes, I have been picking up the remote, pointing it at the TV and tuning in to Question Time in the House of Representatives.

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As an entertainment and as a display of Australian democracy at work Reps' QT is pitiful and unpleasant now. Its tone is banal and stale and angry. QT is carried on in a malignant fog of lies, the worst of which in recent days is the coal-loving government's pretence that South Australia's energy hiccups are the fault that state's wild socialist government's reliance on trendy, treacherous left-wing wind and Trotskyite sunshine.

Underpinning Reps' QT's awfulness is its stale, angry, adversarial style and temper. The Australian people are famously fed-up with the way the major parties rave at one another (for example and at the moment on the vexed issues of power security) and that raving is often at its mad-dog ravingest during QT. There have to be some better ways.

And there are. In a thought-spawning Australian lecture just broadcast by ABC Radio National's Big Ideas (still available by podcast) Tiernan Brady explains how he helped orchestrate the improbable victory (62 per cent said 'Yes') in Ireland's 2015 marriage equality referendum.

Melbourne-based Brady's lecture is witty and wise. Some of it is aimed at the pointlessness of so much "stale, angry" political argument in Australia. He helped see to it that for 2015's Irish vote the 'Yes' case was presented without stale anger but with polite respect for everyone's opinions.

"All too often," Brady says, liltingly, "instead of trying to understand those we're trying to persuade … we take the position of 'Don't be a bigot any longer. It's about time you came out of your cave and changed.' "

"But it turns out that nobody likes being called names. No one on being called a homophobe clutches her pearls and says 'Well, now you've shown me how ignorant I am I can't wait to support you!' "

Brady regrets that our politicians are less interested in "winning" an argument (in making enduring persuasions that get things done and that change the national tone) than in "beating" those they argue with.

"But beating someone achieves you nothing at all except [a cheap, fleeting buzz]."

Yes, beatings are Reps' QT's hallmark.

One of the ugliest in recent days saw politically powerfully-built PM Turnbull figuratively beat up politically slightly-built Greens MP Adam Bandt.

"The new United States President Donald Trump appears to be dangerously unhinged," Bandt diagnosed, uncontroversially.

"So far, Australia has followed the United States into every war every time they've asked. Prime Minister, can you understand why Australians are now worried that they may wake up one morning to find that you have committed Australia to another American-led war?"

"Given how dangerous Donald Trump is, will you commit to supporting the Greens' bill to require a parliamentary debate and decision before Australia follows the US into their next war?"

"Hear, hear. Good one Andrew," I enthused, my voice waking the sweet mongrel puppy in my lap.

Fondling the pup's velvety ears, I sat forward on the lounge, keenly awaiting my prime minister's considered, nation-reassuring, statesmanlike reply. The puppy, already less politically naïve than me even though he is only six months old and I am 71, gave a dismissive snort and went back to sleep.

He knew best, because of course in the same old stale and angry QT way Turnbull's non-answer was a beating-up of Bandt. There was a Turnbull spray of brayed insults of the Greens, followed by stale old clichés about how "Americans understand they have no truer ally, no more resolute friend than Australia," which was of course Bandt's shy, despairing point. We have always been such a resolute toadying friend of America that we have joined in all of its wars irrespective of merit

What if, coached by Tiernan Brady to give a winning answer, Turnbull (in a soft conversational tone rather than the stock QT bray) had said:

"I thank the honourable member for his thoughtful question and acknowledge the Greens' sincere anxiety for our nation in these uncertain times.

"Yes, Australia does have a shameful history of its fawning PMs doing warlike US presidents' biddings. And now that we have an alarming man in the White House (some say he may have a dangerous case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and my telephone conversation with him suggests that may be the case) perhaps it is time at last for us to revise the ways in which we choose to commit Australia to USA-led wars. My government will give the Greens' intelligent proposal open-minded consideration and I will make a statement on the matter in coming days."

How prime ministerial, how winningly Australian an answer like that would have been.