The ABC recently announced that a review, or audit, of the show QandA will take place, led by veteran broadcaster Ray Martin. This follows the recent controversial incident when an individual, who was convicted of threatening the lives of ASIO officials, was allowed to participate in the show’s audience. I’m not going to discuss this particular incident (which is relatively trivial by comparsion); rather I am proposing a much more substantial review of the whole program.

Despite being inexpensive to produce with a reasonably loyal following, the formula is, at best, tired and predictable. At worst, QandA represents much that is broken and outdated with our version of democracy, and especially our parliaments. Although QandA claims that it is ‘democracy in action’, I would argue that it contributes to inaction, even inertia, and disillusionment. This is why.

• There is no deep dive into any issue raised – rather each episode generally tries to cram in about five issues.
• It is about theatre and not substance.

Audience15

• Guests are set up to perform – a good performance is one where they score points against those with different views. It is especially ‘good’ when they receive a round of applause (at least half the aud ience will probably support their point of view to some extent, so if they deliver the message eloquently with a strong finish, the applause will come).

• No-one ever changes their mind on anything – it is not about learning, appreciating different perspectives, and finding a way forward.
• The audience questions are invariably comments or points disguised as a question – there is little evidence of genuine curiosity. Again – the questioners want to score points as well.
• The sizeable audience is usually frustrated by not having enough time to pose their ‘questions’, and if they do they are rarely given adequate attention.
• The conversations between guests are usually debates – and generally audience participants, viewers and guests are more polarized than ever as a result of what occurs.

Sound familiar? Parliament operates in much the same manner. Point scoring. No genuine dialogue. No curiosity. Debate, which is more about theatre and much less about policy, plans or potential solutions. There are defenders of the program, as there are those who advocate for the value of so-called ‘robust debate’. They say, ‘Aren’t we fortunate to live in a country where we have free speech, where we can share our opinions freely, and where we can agree to disagree without being shot at (generally anyway).’ Well, I’m not buying that. I don’t feel that we are lucky with the way our politics is being played out, and I’m nearly always left feeling incredibly let down by QandA (yes, I watch it often in the hope that they dynamics will shift). We can do much better, and we must get better if our faith in our democracy is to be restored.

Fortunately there have been experiments with democracy both here and abroad that are showing how it can be done differently (eg; for example how the City of Melbourne developed a ten year financial plan with the help of randomly selected citizens (modelled on participatory budgeting processes originating in South America) and where the state of Queensland developed a thirty year plan with 80,000 contributions, and where 700 participants virtually achieved consensus with regard to priorities and directions. Or the NDIS Citizens’ Jury that gave a scorecard on how this incredibly important social reform initiative is performing in the trial sites, to help inform the full roll-out of the scheme.

Screenshot 2015-07-04 16.03.37

NDIS Citizens’ Jury – photo Claudio Raschella

Let’s focus on QandA. How could the formula be changed to produce something more useful, and something that strengthens rather than erodes our confidence to make progress as a nation? Here are my suggestions.

• Don’t have episodes on topics, but have a single, compelling question to explore, one that we are really interested in making some progress on, possibly generated from viewers (online collaborative platforms are great for doing this).
• Have less guests – four would be the maximum (I actually think the better episodes have been those with a maximum of two guests).
• Use a skilled facilitator rather than a compere.
• Have a much smaller, diverse audience – or even have an arrangement whereby audience participants move from the outer circle to the inner circle to join the conversation for a time.
• Let guests know that they are expected to learn something from the conversations, and will be asked at the end to talk about any new insights they have gained, and how they might act upon them.
• If a new idea or proposition emerges, test it with the audience (live and watching on TV) to check the pulse about its attractiveness or merit.
• Invite viewers to share what they have learned or have been challenged about.

The QandA game would change by design (and I know full well it will be resisted by some guests who will habitually stick with their party line). The new game would be, ‘How much can we learn from each other?’ ‘What ideas are worth testing, or further exploring at least?’ ‘How collectively smart can we be to make progress on some of our most pressing challenges?’

So, ABC, in summary, it’s time to be bold. Time to show how democracy can be done differently, so that we can generate hope, and instill greater confidence in our policymaking, and our politicians.