QandA. The review that is REALLY needed!

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 At worst, QandA represents much that is broken and outdated with our version of democracy, and especially our parliaments.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.
• 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 audAudience15ience 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.

Posted in


  1. Vicki Vaartjes on July 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks you Max, very nicely put. I do love the show but often walk away disappointed. There are different kinds of risks in the approach you suggest which I can imagine might make broadcasters and panel members uncomfortable. Such as when the program is situated around deep inquiry, learning and participation then it is not possible to predict (nor desirable to control) where things will end up! I think the recent situation that prompted this review illustrated this. I hope that your message finds a way through as QandA does have the potential to offer Australian audiences something really significant in supporting greater social awareness and change in critical issues that are truly difficult to grapple with.

    • Max Hardy on July 4, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      Yes, thanks Vicki, I’m aware that this proposed formula would be somewhat scary or risky for the ABC. For me, much scarier to have it continue with the current format. Surely we can do better.

  2. Lyndall Edwards on July 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks Max. I stopped watching Q&A a long time ago for the reasons you have discussed here. I like your approach to the show and wonder how you could offer it to the ABC. I think they have taken other content risks and may be willing to remodel on these lines. Please find the right recipient and send your ideas on.

  3. Phil on July 6, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Hi Max – there’s a lot to take away from what you are saying here, the format has certainly been frustratingly shallow. The only shows worth watching are usually when they take it off location and do either a deep dive into an issue or have a genuinely interesting panel (without the agitating extreme right and left wing nuts).

    On the flip side though, it scares me that the conservative party is targeting the ABC in general, and Q&A has become opportunistic for them. There is definitely a sense that the Liberal Party of Australia is trying to stamp out media views that run counter to its ideology, and push for a state broadcaster rather than a public one.

    • Max Hardy on July 6, 2015 at 10:33 am

      Hi Phil and thanks. The last thing I’d want to do is give weight to the ideologically driven push. For me, the ‘deep dive’ is more consistent with the role of a public broadcaster. The challenge for the ABC is whether it is seen as sufficiently entertaining. I guess it’s whether they see their role as providing theatre, or providing space for dialogue over important issues, and generating ways forward. Probably the former rather than the latter.

  4. Nicole Hunter on July 8, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Great review of Q&A Max and excellent overview of what is needed going forward. I agree with others you should definitely pose this to the ABC in the spirit of collaboration. It is time we had some serious dialogue on TV. SBS’s Insight comes close but also misses the bar a little on the ‘what have we learnt’. There is something to be learnt from the SBS ‘Go back home’ show (I know that was immersive and experiential in nature) but the follow-up conversations we transforming for some. There is something in this that needs to be explored. Well done Max.

    • Max Hardy on July 18, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks Nic. Yes Loved that SBS show as well. The response to my blog has been encouraging. Have offered to help the ABC – we’ll see what happens!

  5. rob weymouth on July 20, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Good post Max. I’ve been feeling this way about QandA too. I held out hope for it because of the modicum of citizen involvement but its stuck where it is. ……
    There are certainly a whole bunch of reasons (apart from the philosophical ones) that it would help the ABC to change course in the direction you suggest. Not the least of which would be diverting the charges of bias.
    Although, I suspect that there would be some who would feel threatened by such a change of format. Seeing how opposed Bronwyn Bishop was to Luca and the ideas he supports (which he didn’t really get a chance to talk about) on the show a couple of weeks ago, gives some indication. I thought she was going to call him a communist…………..
    Finally, a thought – why hasn’t something similar to what you suggest been done before? I can’t think of a good example – although SBS’s Insight is an improvement. Let me be clear – this is not an argument against the idea but it might indicate that there are some structural barriers in place (eg. deliberation is not good TV – its too long, non tribal, and respectful)?


    • Max Hardy on July 27, 2015 at 10:51 pm

      Thanks Rob. Yes there are probably fears that deliberation will not make for good TV. There has got to be an alternative formula though – surely. Still waiting for the ABC to invite me in for the review!!

  6. David Brewster on August 7, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    Very well put Max. You nail exactly why I (along with many others it seems) rarely watch it anymore. I read a lot less news generally for similar reasons.

    I did watch last week’s show with four very intelligent people discussing (mainly) science-related matters and found it far more interesting, though even it could have been better if they’d followed your approach.

  7. Bruce Meder on August 28, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for this Max. Well said. I do enjoy watching this show to an extent though, especially as being a Kiwi I know that there is nothing in New Zealand that can really compare. My main difficulty with Q & A in terms of democracy is that it is still a “Let-get-the-experts- to-debate-the-issues-and-the-rest-of-us-will-just-watch.” If democracy is going to survive in the 21st century then it is going to have to take some fairly large steps towards much greater representativeness in terms of diversity, fairness and honest dialogue (not debate – that’s too adversarial). Thanks for the post

Leave a Comment