Tarts, floozies and endless holes

At risk of piling on to an already quivering heap of sanctimony and outrage, there are some things that need to be said about last night’s Q&A.

First, the absence of serving politicians makes the show considerably more watchable. No one really wants to see Mark Dreyfus and Sophie Mirabella do their level best* to avoid hurling voluminous epithets at one another across the bench in between recited talking points.

The presence of smart, urbane people on the panel makes it immediately better. To paraphrase one of Mr Denmore‘s tweets that night, the show works best when it feels like you’re watching a particularly sprightly and animated dinner party, attended by witty, well informed people from various political stripes. Last night was close to that.

However (and you just knew the ‘however’ was coming), there was a great deal to be deeply worried about.

Barry Humphries may be a living treasure and all, but it’s probably past the decade when you can refer to someone’s skin colour being dark because he was ‘poorly lit’, and have that be the joke. Not the setup to some witty play on racial politics, but The Joke.

It’s probably past time that you can refer to a sex worker as a ‘tart’ purely because she’s a sex worker. In particular, coming from David Marr, it was deeply disappointing. Then, rounding on Gina Rinehart, calling her ‘fat and ugly’, and referring to her mine being and ‘endless hole’ (to the self-satisfied chortling of the audience) began to point to a ‘casual misogyny‘, which is far better covered in this piece by News With Nipples.

Worst of all, perhaps, was the open and willing hypocrisy of pretty much the entire panel when, after tearing into Gina Rinehart’s personal appearance because of her temerity to make money and speak out on mining taxes and carbon prices, they then rapidly sprung to the defence of Cate Blanchett and her right to speak out on carbon prices.

They were appalled – appalled – at the way Ms Blanchett was treated by the media when she poked her head up, seemingly unaware that they sat at a desk being beamed live across the country by the national broadcaster while calling Australia’s richest woman fat and ugly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Rinehart fan, and I can’t stand her (and her ilk’s) effectiveness at dominating the national conversation on the Importance Of Mining To Australia. In fact, it was pretty depressing to see Tony Jones leap to Rinehart’s defence by trotting out the tired (and measurably wrong) line that she was an innovator and job creator whose industry single-handedly saved the Australian economy. The fact that one of the most august presenters on one of the most august programmes was buying into that particular piece of garbage justifies attacks on Rinehart’s bullshit advocacy for her own interests. But it doesn’t justify politically slanted misogyny.

Which raises the question why Jones saw fit to defend Rinehart’s economic importance, but not her simple human dignity? Why did he not quietly pull up Marr (who, I will give the benefit of the doubt and was simply on a bit of a verbal tear) when he started smearing a sex worker whose ACA interview had yet to air? Why did he not tell Ms Margolyes that calling a woman ‘fat and ugly’ is probably inappropriate on a high-minded national TV show (which raises the question of why he didn’t correct Germaine Greer for her ‘you’ve got a big arse, Julia’ crack a few months back)?

While it’s great to have entertainers, with their carefree willingness to be, you know, entertaining, on the show, the fact that they are less accountable than politicians means they are often less careful with their words. And that can lead to trouble.

The biggest problem behind all of this was the fact that those delivering on the hypocrisy and sexism were, by and large, hugely charming and funny, with impeccable comic timing. The old adage that you can get away with saying or doing anything if its funny tends to stand true. Last night’s panel was, by and large, stocked with professional entertainers, well-versed in the art of bringing the crowd along with them. And bring the crowd along they did, all the way to ‘Gina’s endless hole’. I’ll happily admit to catching myself chuckling at some of the gags before realising their substance.

Q&A is a hugely important part of Australia’s social, political and cultural scene, and the willingness of the producers to forgo the easy option of commissioning a shouting match between opposing politicians should be commended. But please, please, let’s just try to remember that if even a show like Q&A can’t keep its head out of the muck, what can we possibly expect from this?

*not very good