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Q&A host takes on a fiery Bill Shorten

Answers interrupt questions on Q&A

At times host Tony Jones made it almost impossible for Bill Shorten to answer as he kept asking questions. Courtesy: ABC News24


At the end of Bill Shorten’s one-man-band gig on Monday night’s Q&A, Tony Jones had some big news for viewers: Malcolm Turnbull will be fronting the national inquisition next week. It will be his first appearance since he became Prime Minister, and he will be flying solo.

Some early advice for the PM: forget that famous Q&A leather jacket. Roll your sleeves up and brace for some hand-to-hand combat – with the host as much as with the audience. On the evidence of last nights scrappy and snippy 75-minute set-to with the Opposition Leader, any anticipated relaxed solo rendition of one’s policy greatest hits will find itself colliding head-long with Jones’ determination to point out every one of your dodgy lyrics and dud B-sides.

'I'm actually answering the question' ... Bill Shorten expresses his frustration with Q&A host Tony Jones.

‘I’m actually answering the question’ … Bill Shorten expresses his frustration with Q&A host Tony Jones. Photo: ABC

A leader needs to be on song in this setting, a departure from Q&A‘s normal format in which government and opposition representatives are there to keep the other honest. In the absence of this theoretical check and balance, the role of Devil’s advocate falls entirely on the host – and from early on in Monday’s proceedings, Bill Shorten wasn’t entirely happy about the host’s interpretation of his role. Nor were many on social media, where Jones’ entanglements with the Labor leader were taken as evidence that a program most commonly derided as a weekly massage for the indulgences of the left is in fact a vehicle for promoting the predilections of the right.


From this we can deduce that Tony Jones is just doing his job, a task that necessarily involves getting the goat of a leader in the hot seat in the middle of an election campaign. By this yardstick he succeeded admirably: the Shorten goat was well and truly gotten, but he gave as good as he got – and probably emerged the better for the experience.

It started early on, and didn’t let up.

Persistent ... Q&A host Tony Jones got the goat of Bill Shorten with a firm line of questioning.

Persistent … Q&A host Tony Jones got the goat of Bill Shorten with a firm line of questioning. Photo: ABC

A Jones follow-up on a question about deficits produced this exchange:

Shorten: “I’m actually answering the question but what I’m not doing to do…”

Jones, with a stern reminder of the rules for the night: “You’re going to answer questions from the floor…”

'What I'm not going to play is gotcha politics' ... Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was in a combative mood on Q&A.

‘What I’m not going to play is gotcha politics’ … Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was in a combative mood on Q&A. Photo: ABC

Shorten: “Tony…”

Jones: “… and follow-up questions from me, that’s how it’s going to…”

Shorten: “I’m going to answer Jason’s questions. What I’m not going to play is gotcha politics. I’m explaining what Chris Bowen has said.”

That was the first outing for “gotcha”, but not the last.

Before long, they were at it again when Shorten proposed reading to the audience “a very quick list” of Labor spending reductions.

Jones: “It looks like a long list.”

Shorten: “There are lot of things we’re making tough decisions on.”

Jones: “Be quick. Pick the top ones.”

Shorten: “Well, I’m going to be factual.”

And this was the polite end of the evening. Things grew progressively more antsy as the night went on. On the NBN, Jones was obliged to point out that the government disputes Labor’s new funding model.

Shorten: “Well, there’s a surprise, the Liberals are opposing our idea.”

Jones: “They’re opposing your costings.”

Shorten, throwing his hands in the air: “There’s another surprise.”

Jones: “You’re saying you can do it without spending any more money.”

This exchange ended with Shorten deploying the rankled Q&A guest’s poke-in-the-eye of choice, tossing back at the host his own trademark line, or in Shorten’s version of it: “Do I take that as a comment or a question?”

It was a question, Jones assured him.

Shorten’s body language by this point suggested he wasn’t buying it.

But for the viewer at home, the question had become: was he genuinely offended by Jones’ challenging tone, or was this a strategy – that is, taking the not-unknown political gamble that picking a fight with a smartypants journalist is one of the few reputation-based battles a politician has a reasonable hope of winning? It certainly never fails to please the base.

Whatever the case, Shorten was in it for the duration. A discussion on Indigenous recognition – and the possibility of a future treaty with Aboriginal Australia – prompted more Shorten eye-rolling and this to-and-fro:

Shorten: “Again, I just have a sense, Tony – maybe you think I’m being a little harsh on you – that there’s a little bit of gotcha going on here.”

Jones: “No, no. It’s not gotcha, it’s a question, based on what you just said.”

Shorten: “Well, all right …”

Jones: “When you said ‘yes’, I assumed certain things.”

Shorten, summoning something approaching a Julie Bishop-like death stare: “I think you were just surprised to hear me say ‘yes’.”

Jones: “I was.”

By now the audience was applauding – whether for Shorten’s defiance or for the host’s insistence, or just for the entertainment value provided by the biffo, is hard to know.

Jones persevered: “I just want to …”

Shorten: “Hang on Tony, you asked me six questions there.”

Jones: “No, I asked you one.”

Shorten: “Six times.”

And on it went – with a “That’s not right, mate” and a “Sorry, mate. I don’t want to interrupt your question with an answer” still to come from the Labor leader. Jones at one point appeared genuinely bewildered by the air of acrimony, and for his trouble was obliged to keep the program on air for a good 10 minutes past its running time.

After 75 minutes, he finally brought the curtain down. Next week it’s Malcolm Turnbull’s turn on Q&A‘s centre stage, and he will want to rehearse some high notes in the shower beforehand. The shame of it is we are not going to see the two leaders do this gig together – a Turnbull-Shorten tag-team taking on Tony Jones is just the sort of showdown this turgid campaign needs.

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