21 June 2016
by Neil McMahon

Q&A recap: Host Tony Jones puts flu-ridden Malcolm Turnbull in the hot seat

Smiling but under the weather ... Malcolm Turnbull was the sole guest on Q&A on Monday night.

What was the question asked of the prime minister in 2016 that matched in sentiment, if not in precise wording, a curly proposition put to a previous prime minister - Kevin Rudd - on his solo appearance on the program during Campaign 2013?

To Rudd, September 2, 2013: "You and Tony Abbott to me seem almost the same person."

To Turnbull, June 20, 2016: "A bit over six months ago the Liberal Party made you the PM on the promise that you weren't Tony Abbott … but the real problem is that in two weeks you hope to continue in the same position on the argument that you're not Malcolm Turnbull either. Are you?"

And herein lies the diagnosis of an electorate in a state of such confusion that instead of ballot papers we should be furnished on July 2 with a multiple choice questionnaire in which we take our best stab at just who our leaders of the moment most resemble and go from there.

No PM now wants to be compared to any of their immediate predecessors, or even to themselves.

Rudd successfully convinced us he was not John Howard, in a good way - only to later convince us he was not John Howard, but in a bad way. He was replaced by Julia Gillard, who insisted she was not Kevin Rudd, but also not entirely herself until she proffered us the Real Julia, a performance judged unconvincing enough that she was replaced by Kevin Rudd, who assured he was not Julia Gillard or, indeed, himself. This magic trick found wanting, Rudd 2.0 was replaced by Tony Abbott - persuading us he was neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard, only to convince us with Oscar-worthy resonance that he was, indubitably, Tony Abbott.

This exhibition of chaotic authenticity saw him replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, who's confidence he was not Tony Abbott or anybody else previously familiar to mortal eyes seemed quite nice, but who has now left us concerned he is … who exactly?

Who knows, a nation asks plaintively?

Fortunately we have Q&A to track a drama-filled timeline of political history that plays like the audition room from A Chorus Line.

With Turnbull's appearance on Monday night, the program continued a tradition that began with its very first episode in May 2008: the opening guest was PM Kevin Rudd, solo. Since then, these solo prime ministerial performances have occurred eight times. Gillard did five, including just before the 2010 campaign, while Rudd did a further two, including that 2013 election showing. Abbott, having twice fronted solo as opposition leader, did not deign to appear as PM. But with Turnbull's latest effort, the program at least maintains a perfect record for getting sitting prime ministers in the chair at campaign time.

It is never pleasant, as the incumbent discovered last night when both audience and host put him through the wringer. This was Turnbull returning to the platform he once graced with the leather-clad confidence of Arthur Fonzarelli punching a jukebox to life on Happy Days. The burning question? Had he, as Fonzie taught us all heroes eventually do, jumped the shark?

Well, as it happened, a flu-ridden Turnbull - rendered additionally sedate by a campaign mode summed up by a commercial asking voters to give his "mob" another go "for a while" - appeared in no shape to jump a shark or anything much else. His task, by these standards, was to jump the 75 minutes in front of him without crashing into anything and in this he mostly succeeded.

The questions came thick and fast: deals with his party's right wing; promises on Medicare; the "never-never" ambition of surplus pledges; tax reform; trickle-down economics; mental health; the NBN. None of these was to be unexpected, and there were no real surprises in the replies.

But anticipated questions were still able to put the PM on the spot.

There was the left-field video question submitted by Behrouz Boochani, an asylum seeker on Manus Island, whose challenge - 'What is my crime?" - had Turnbull scrambling. "I don't know anything about his personal circumstances," he pleaded. Having been briefly enlightened by Tony Jones, Turnbull fell back on familiar recitation of "stop-the-boats" policy. The next question - would the PM visit the Manus "concentration camp" - brought this response: "Thank you for that invitation", but no indication he would accept it.

The subject of same-sex marriage came up repeatedly - raised first by Turnbull himself, as he tried to pre-emptively shut down debate over whether a plebiscite is a wise course of action given the hate-fest it might unleash. But it would not go away - he faced a painfully personal challenge from a woman, who declared: "I find it an insult to be asked to vote for my gay son and nephew to be equal with their siblings." This came hot on the heels of a question about the PM's recent dining partner, Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman, and his views on homosexuality. "How are these [views] any more abhorrent than comments by Senator Cory Bernardi", Turnbull was asked.

He responded by condemning intolerance from any quarter - but invited the follow-up from Tony Jones.

Jones: "One word answer. Did you say that to Cory Bernardi?"

Turnbull: "Ah… I have … said … ah… I've said… yes … I've had … ah … I've had firm discussions with a number of colleagues, yes."

It was an answer that, perhaps for the first time in his public life, suggested Malcolm Turnbull was taking public speaking tips from Molly Meldrum - a man whose assistance might have come in handy when he faced an awkward challenge about another colleague. Audience member Katie Noonan - the singer - demanded commitment of funding for "an independent Australia Council for the Arts - not Brandis's Australia Council for the Arts". To this question - a reference to the former arts minister George Brandis - the PM tried hard but ended up once more tongue-tied. "I think … look, I'm not … I don't have a … it is something we inherited, I inherited from my predecessor's administration" and um, er - mmmm.

Mmmm. By this time one could sense the longing for it to be over, and it soon enough was, but not before a final question took us back to where we started: "If you got a do-over, what would you do differently?"

The nation waited - and the nation got "most exciting time" boilerplate. What we didn't hear was the unspoken wish: that if he had his time over, the PM wouldn't be sitting on Q&A with people wondering what he'd done with the old Malcolm Turnbull. Let alone comparing him to Tony Abbott, or Kevin Rudd.

Which brings us back to the prize we mentioned at the start. If you got the answer right, here's your reward: permission to go and have a good lie down. We'll wake you when it's over.