The view from Billinudgel

Playing the ban
Tony Abbott’s Q&A saga continues

Tony Abbott on Q&A in happier times.

Tony Abbott has got it the wrong way around. He seems to think that he is offering the ABC a favour by allowing, under strict conditions, some of his ministers to appear on some of its programs. 

But actually it doesn’t work like that: the national broadcaster has numerous people more interesting and competent than Abbott’s robotic frontbenchers clamoring to get on air. 

On Q&A there are plenty of more or less articulate right-wingers who can provide “balance”, and do it better than all but few of Abbott’s appointed spokesthings: if the worst comes to the worst, the zealots of the Institute of Public Affairs are  always ready and willing to fill any gaps.

As the more sensible members of the Coalition realized immediately, Abbott’s unilateral ban was counterproductive. All it did was penalise his colleagues without materially damaging the ABC. Abbott needs the ABC – including Q&A – more than it needs him.

The smart thing to do would have been to accept the apology offered over the Zaky Mallah affair promptly and graciously and then, in one of his own favourite phrases, to move on. But Abbott, being Abbott, punched on.

More to save face than anything else, various enquiries were set up, the most important being the one run by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown, and Abbott appeared to be content to leave his ukase in place until it was completed; but if Q&A was cleared, if heads did not roll, what then?

Malcolm Turnbull, who had always thought that the ban was a silly idea, persuaded the ABC chairman James Spigelman to conciliate, and Spigelman floated the suggestion that Q&A be moved to the news and current affairs division as a token gesture of reform and repentance. Turnbull agreed, and then made the mistake of telling Abbott, who immediately and publicly turned it into an ultimatum: if this was done, he would free his ministers. If not … well, what?

Apart from the fact that this was a clear breach of the ABC’s jealously guarded charter of independence from political coercion, this was deluded; he seemed to believe that he was negotiating from a position of strength, while in fact he should be suing for terms. The ABC is vastly more popular than the prime minister; indeed, arguably a fart in a crowded lift would be more popular than Tony Abbott at the moment.

The ABC was never about to run up a white flag; all it could do was reply snootily that the board would consider Abbott’s proposal at next month’s meeting, letting Q&A continue without ministers in the meantime. Government backbenchers may continue to appear, but their presence will only accentuate the holes in the cabinet.

Abbott’s stubbornness is yet another captain’s pick: arrogant, short-sighted, and above all foolish. In a rational world the situation would never have developed into an undignified brawl, let alone one the government can never win. But then, in a rational world, Tony Abbott would not be prime minister in the first place. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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