In its final episode for 2018, Monday's Q&A was a smorgasbord, in keeping with the year soon to end. Whatever you wanted, it was there – occasionally tasty, sometimes dry, and sometimes you couldn’t believe what you just ate.
On that note, the program had invited back the Brit Brendan O’Neill, a walking frown whose special talent is shaking his head while simultaneously nodding it in agreement with himself and also turning it downwards as if he is always about to step in dog poo.
British commentator Brendan O’Neill said he defended free speech of any kind.Credit:ABC
O’Neill fancies himself as the fly in the ointment, the early bird who got the worm, the cat that ate the canary and the canary down the coal mine. He manages this all at once, and scientists are just as confused.
Also on hand on Monday night: three members of our federal Parliament – President of the Senate Scott Ryan, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, and Greens leader Richard Di Natale. For sanity, we had lawyer and community advocate Nyadol Nyuon.
The debate traversed the spectrum, assuming your spectrum begins with Robert Menzies, covers the existential crisis brought on by Scott Morrison, includes Pauline Hanson in a burqa, and ponders whether Bill Shorten is the Steven Bradbury of Australian politics.
On Menzies, the question went to Scott Ryan: “If a politician of the calibre of Menzies were around in 2018, would he embrace… such things as renewable energy, gay marriage and multiculturalism?”
Sir Robert was not available for comment, and Ryan wisely took the middle road.
“I've always thought it's fraught trying to take figures from history and apply them to the policy tests of today… same-sex marriage was not contemplated when Robert Menzies was PM.”
Nor was Scott Morrison, and on that score Ryan was – eventually – more succinct.
Tony Jones: “Was it right to change your leader?”
Ryan: “My position was well known. I supported Malcolm and then I supported Scott. I believe in honesty in these things.”
Jones: “Was it right to make the change because politically you're at a crisis now?”
Ryan: “I wouldn't use the word crisis…”
Scott Ryan said he wouldn’t call the Liberal Party’s issues a ‘crisis’.Credit:ABC
Jones: “Was it right to change the leader?”
Ryan: “I supported Malcolm. As did Scott.”
Jones: "So it wasn’t right?”
Ryan: “No. My vote reflects my view.”
He got there eventually, as did Di Natale who was asked if the Greens were facing their own existential crisis.
“Let's not forget the role we play in the Senate,” he said.
“There is going to be a Labor government after the next election. Probably in a landslide. And to be frank, this mob needs to be turfed out. And Tanya Plibersek will be the next deputy prime minister of the country and we think that's much better than the current situation.”
He went on: “That might be the kiss of death for Tanya.”
Plibersek: “Richard is much more confident about this than I am.”
The civility didn’t last.
Plibersek: “The Greens are [a] mess at the moment.”
Di Natale declared that “nonsense”.
“I’m not going to take a lecture about division from a party that knifed a sitting prime minister, then knifed the first female prime minister of the country to bring the sociopath back in charge.”
Who on earth could he mean?
Di Natale: “That’s the description Labor colleagues give to him.”
Jones: “Almost certainly that is not the case, because we know there's a clinical definition of sociopath.”
Di Natale: “Some of his colleagues might say he satisfied it.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek attached each other’s parties.Credit:ABC
Jones: “I don’t think legally we should even suggest it.”
Somewhere, Kevin Rudd was swearing.
The program wound to its conclusion in a fiery debate over freedom of speech.
The question: “As a young brown male who does not drive a taxi or work at a convenience store, or deliver food for Senator David Leyonhjelm, I wanted to know what is the line of what should or shouldn't be said in parliament?
“We've had Pauline Hanson dress up in a burqa, we've had Richard Di Natale being booted from Parliament for calling another politician a pig. We’ve also had the ‘It's OK to be white’ speech. Is it fair game for politicians to use rhetoric which purposely marginalises and inflames tensions between Australians because they have been democratically elected?”
Jones: “I will start with our free-speech advocate, Brendan O'Neill, because you've gone as far as to say that Nazis should have free speech and if you impinge on that you're impinging on everybody's free speech?”
O’Neill: “Absolutely. Freedom of speech is an absolute. Either everyone has it or no one has it… Politicians and everyone else should be free to say whatever they want and be free to be as offensive as they want and then it falls to us, people who disagree with them, to challenge that.”
Nyuon: “I don't think there is absolute free speech… because some of the advocates for absolute free speech would, on one ground, rebuke a young girl who refused to stand up for the Australian flag because that's not the kind of speech that they like.
“It's reasonable sometimes to restrict speech because it's not generally… good public policy to have people engage in certain forms of speech. Clearly incitement of violence, for example, is a clear area where that is no longer an area where you can have an argument that it’s free speech.”
The debate went on.
A bizarre skit at the end of the show fell flat.Credit:ABC
Nyuon: “Can I just go back to this idea that somehow it's beneficial for minority groups to have people come out and call us ‘niggers’ [and] all these kind of words?”
O’Neill: “I didn't say that. I said it's beneficial for you to argue against the people who say that.”
It was a fitting end to the year: arguing about insults, the right to insult, the right not to be insulted, and the right to argue against the right not to be able to argue against the right not to be insulted. Or something.
And when it came to taking offence, a closing skit by the perennially offensive crew from The Wharf Revue – a long-running satirical stage show that is a delight in full flight – landed like a bomb on Monday night. Its rendition of The Book of Cormann – four buttoned-up versions of Mathias Cormann, outside of any context that might have made it familiar or funny – simply didn’t work.
Farewell, Q&A 2018. You’ve been a peach.
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