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When will Mr No say 'Yes' to Q&A?

Date

Chris Johnson

OK, let's compare Julia Gillard's performance on the ABC's Q&A program this week to Tony Abbott's appearance on the show.

Gillard was personable, smart, direct, witty and even at times charming.

Abbott was … well, not there.

What about the week before then? Nope.

The week before that? The month before? Last year?

No, no and no.

He'll be on next week then, surely?

Actually, that's a negative as well.

The cold, hard truth is that the Opposition Leader has not appeared on Q&A since the 2010 federal election despite there being a standing invitation.

The program's producers have come up with a variety of dates and venue options for his consideration, but they have all been knocked back.

They have made it clear to Abbott that he is welcome any time, yet he has consistently declined. The program's executive producer Peter McEvoy told this column: ''Q&A would be very pleased to have Mr Abbott back on the program in his role as Opposition Leader and we know the Q&A audience would appreciate that opportunity to hear from the alternative prime minister.'' Indeed.

Many Australians would like to see Abbott front up, face host Tony Jones and answer his questions as well as those from the live audience.

What has happened to cause him to stop appearing on the program?

The Canberra Times asked his office this week if the Leader of the Opposition had any plans to go on the show again or if he had any particular objection to the program.

The reply was simply: ''We don't comment on Tony's media plans.'' Yet Abbott was once a regular on Q&A. In fact, he was part of its first panel on the pilot that streamed live in May 2008. Back then he was the shadow minister for families, community services, indigenous affairs and the voluntary sector.

In fact, up until becoming Opposition Leader, Abbott was one of the show's most frequent guests.

Since becoming leader he has appeared twice, both times as the sole guest - once in April 2010 and the other in August the same year.

That takes us to the last federal election and since then Abbott has been a Q&A no-show.

It's a tough gig to be sure. But he's a tough guy. Isn't he?

He'd have to be a tough guy to visit a Coalition-friendly business each day for a quick tour, barbecue a sausage or two perhaps, and repeat before the cameras: ''Carbon tax bad, mining tax bad, boats bad.'' Abbott's good at the scripted event. He stays on message and it is so far working a treat for him.

And he's great when he appears on radio and television programs hosted by right-wing commentators like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt.

He's fine too with commercial television's soft morning shows (Gillard likes them too).

But he rarely puts himself in the firing line of the really hard questions.

Instead of the alternative prime minister turning up to shows like Q&A and Lateline, he instead sends alternative opposition leaders - Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Christopher Pyne.

Is it that he doesn't have the answers or is it simply that Abbott can't abide surprises and not having total control of the situation?

Or is it that the opinion polls tell him that so long as he doesn't mess up big time, he's a certainty for The Lodge? Whatever else might be said about the Prime Minister, it can't be said that she ever turns away from those who would publicly scrutinise her.

In press conferences Abbott often cuts and runs after just a handful of questions. Gillard usually stays until she has exhausted all the questions - and exhausted the journalists asking them too.

During Monday's Q&A appearance, which was her first since July last year - and both times she was the sole guest - Gillard took and answered almost an hour's worth of questions.

There were no other panel members to share the load. The focus was all on her and there was no escape. The questions were mostly delivered in a polite manner, but they were hardly easy ones.

They spanned a variety of topics, some of which must have been uncomfortable for the PM: Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper - Kevin Rudd! Yet she answered them all in a pretty straightforward kind of way.

The only time she really appeared challenged and unconvincing was during the grilling over her position on gay marriage.

On the issue of her own troubled leadership, Gillard managed to put an end to Tony Jones's dogged line of questioning with a bit of style. ''What about you and I set a commitment now to do Q&A during the 2013 election campaign? You can have that job and I will have this job,'' she said, before adding a clever quip.

''They're not trying to get rid of you next year, are they?'' Laughter all round and let's go to another question from the floor.

Jones didn't like being the subject of the joke, which is probably why a few minutes later when the PM was dismissing his suggestion her bamboo knitting needles could in any way be considered dangerous weapons, he threw back the rather juvenile retort: ''Well, I wouldn't want one in my back.''

Abbott can't use the excuse that the ABC is biased against him, because it certainly isn't going easy on Gillard.

No one, anywhere, appears to be going easy on the PM right now.

The point is Gillard fronts up and faces the flak. Abbott just doesn't. He used to, back in the days when he had more energy. Maybe he's just tired.

It seems that Labor is tired of Abbott, or at least tired of mentioning his name.

This week has seen another development for the government, particularly for the PM.

Gillard has hardly mentioned Abbott's name all week.

Focus groups have told Labor something, and that's probably that it should talk more positively about its own achievements and less at all about Abbott.

The Prime Minister did exactly that during her Q&A appearance, which was kindly pointed out to television viewers by a Labor insider posing as an impartial tweeter.

The rest of the week was pretty ordinary for Gillard. There was the fizzer of an economic forum in Brisbane - with most Coalition premiers following Abbott's example and just not turning up; mutual backslapping with the NATO boss back in Canberra; and shrugging off talk of a dirt unit within her own office.

All routine politics perhaps.

But Australians were reminded at the beginning of the week, via Q&A, that the Prime Minister many of them love to hate is pretty focused and more than a little tough.

Meanwhile, Q&A's executive producer hopes desperately that the Opposition Leader will one day soon put down his barbecue tongs and pick up the phone and utter the one word he finds so hard to say - ''yes''.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political Correspondent.

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