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Kitchen cabinet unvarnished

November 9, 2015 - 16:41 -- Admin

Like Andrew Bolt, Annabel Crabb has developed a media persona which cannot admit the possibility of anger. Crabb is locked in to being unrelentingly light, bright and trite in public; to divert from that image would pretty much end her persona (it might make for a more complex persona over time, but it would smash Kitchen Cabinet in the process).In this piece, she wants to reject any and all criticism of her Kitchen Cabinet episode with Scott Morrison. She talks about how the media landscape has changed - yet, like some shell-backed reactionary from the old school of Australian media, Crabb expects that assertions will take the place of explanation and argument in reiterating the premise of her show. It isn't only politicians or sportspeople who reveal character under duress.She has, as ever, buried some genuine issues under the guise of incivility - as though the very act of questioning what she does is illegitimate. You'd expect that she would maintain civility throughout, for to let it slip would undermine her position in more ways than one.I understand why people like Kitchen Cabinet as light entertainment, and it's true that if I don't like it I'm free not to watch it. However, Crabb has said that the show has an importance that goes to the political, how we understand our leaders and representatives. This is the basis on which I criticise the show: I think it fails as political information, the claims Crabb makes for it simply don't hold. Crabb starts by framing all criticism as inherently unreasonable: nothing more than abusive, violent (stabbing), even "spittle-flecked" - no media channel I use admits or presents information in moist form, but anyway. Perhaps the spittle came not from her interlocutors but from Crabb herself, livid at being questioned yet again by the ungrateful masses.This is another example of a phenomenon I've noted for years now, as recently as last week, whereby Crabb simply cannot admit the possibility that other people with opinions she doesn't like may nonetheless have a point. As far back as 2010 she delivered a lecture to the University of Melbourne whose basic thrust can be summarised as: do not mess with us. We are the media and you are not, so just don't. We can prank one another but we will not be pranked, so you can all piss off and just buy our products both literally and figuratively. This attitude prevails, even to her most recent article, and I doubt any actual facts can ever persuade her to a different view.About halfway down the page she stops engaging with spittle-flecked apparitions and deals with an actual person, someone sanitised by appearing in an outlet for which she used to work:

... the most cogently-put and interesting came from TV reviewer Ben Pobjie in The Age:"What a government minister is like at home – or in the kitchen – is irrelevant to the country: what matters is what they do. And the more we get to know them personally the more we fall for the lie that 'what they're really like' is important."I can't agree with this. I don't think you can possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Political leaders – like every single one of us – are shaped by the things that have happened to them and to the people close to them. Those factors – what they're like – exert a considerable and usually invisible influence over the most important decisions a political leader will ever make. Namely: which issues they are going to choose to die in a ditch for, which they will pop in the too-hard basket, which they might compromise on. This is the stuff that realistically drives the political process. And fleshy, human, and deeply subjective stuff it is too. Knowing what a person is like is powerful.

In my earlier piece I gave examples of previous KC episodes which failed utterly to create any sort of link between politicians' professed beliefs and their actual performance in office. There are no countervailing examples where Crabb has artfully winkled out some special insight into a politician's soul which informs us to this day.To be fair to Crabb, Morrison was always a tough sell. Even his old school won't have him. The Australian Women's Weekly did a "puff piece" on him which claimed faith and family motivate him. Yet, his treatment of asylum-seekers shows how little those elements really motivate him in the actual execution of the powers of his office. He blithely declared that he did not discuss "on-water matters" and the fearless combatants of the press gallery simply accepted this. The idea that Crabb supplements strong coverage is garbage.In theory, you can't possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Crabb hasn't made that connection in her show. She hasn't allowed for the possibility - no, the repeatedly demonstrated fact - that those politicians have humoured her, but essentially revealed nothing about themselves and the decisions they take in office. She hasn't deigned to give examples that even rebut, let alone refute, her failure to meet her own standards. There are two reasons for this:

  • There are no examples where she has demonstrated a human moment in Kitchen Cabinet leading to a policy outcome inexplicable by standard political analysis. You can't give an example where all of them (nearly thirty half-hour episodes) fail Crabb's own test.
  • Annabel Crabb doesn't answer to you, peasant. If she's got Mark Scott on side then who the hell do you think you are, anyway, having opinions? If she's learned one thing from politicians, it's to answer a specific question with a generality.

Clearly, the light, bright and trite persona is bogus, and more brittle than a genuine and stable personality should be. Ben Pobjie is right in saying that Kitchen Cabinet is nothing more than light entertainment, though I don't share his affection for it or for Crabb.

Why should it only be political journalists and insiders who get to see [the "fleshy, human, and deeply subjective" aspects of a politician's life]?

This falsely assumes it is. It falsely assumes a political persona in the arena of parliament is somehow genuine. We all saw Joe Hockey and Michael Keenan blubber while vowing that children wouldn't be sent to offshore detention centres, and then we saw them do exactly that which they vowed never to do. All Crabb got was Hockey's Bart Simpson bedsheets. She told us nothing about Hockey's performance as Treasurer, nothing about his determination both to strip entitlements from others and abrogate appropriate them for himself.Look at every other episode and you'll find plenty of nothing there, too. Kitchen Cabinet has a strong and proven track record as pablum; no future episode will ever be particularly insightful. Crabb seems to think it is a new idea which must be given a(nother) chance.

Now, the defining moments of political journalism will always be the ones where someone gets hurt. We moan about how nasty politics is, of course, but what can match the thrill of Leigh Sales ripping some minister a new one, or the sickening speed with which a pleasant exchange with Laurie Oakes can turn into an episode of unforgettable political violence?To watch politicians under pressure is always informative, and sometimes it can be popcorn-scrabblingly compelling (who can forget Mark Riley's epic stare-off with a fizzing Tony Abbott?)

If you regard political journalism as a performance art, I suppose, in which politicians and journalists are both performers rather than jointly committed to informing Australians how we are governed. If you do (and Crabb does) then the cooking show is just another piece of vacuous performance art, liable to be manipulated by a politician both familiar with and contemptuous of the press gallery.Now that the Abbott government is over, we see that Abbott-Riley exchange spoke volumes about how that man would govern - more so than the Kitchen Cabinet episode with Abbott. Again with Morrison: go back through the Kitchen Cabinet episode (oh go on, I had to) and see that it was far less insightful than Morrison's recent smart-arse response to Paul Kelly on a major economic thinker.

To observe such a person in their own environment offers – in my view – some useful information about how they might behave outside it.

Again with the unsupported/ unsupportable assertion: put up or shut up.

Our democracy is big, vigorous and free. I treasure it.

When you spend too much time around politicians you learn to lapse back into a banality, preferably one with a patriotism theme.Imagine Australia was a dictatorship - and I don't mean under some penny-ante operator like Campbell Newman, but a full Stalin/ Assad/ Kim-style monster. All the proper investigative journalists would be dead or in prison. The state broadcaster would showcase the dictator with Annabel Crabb, who would sit on his knee and playfully tweak his moustache. He would declare that he laughs at funny movies and cries at sad ones, and Crabb would agree this makes him human. They would eat the green-brown slop of Official Rations and Crabb would agree it was good enough for the likes of us. It would be So Watchable because nothing else would be on.

It was suggested to me a few times recently that "PR puff pieces" like Kitchen Cabinet are "swamping" journalism. Dear God. I have never heard such bollocks.

You can't insist on civility above all else, and regard any/all criticism as infra dig, while carrying on like that. Think about all the bollocks to have come out of politics over the past nineteen years: does that really trump them all? Does it come close? See what I mean?

The media landscape is heaving with old and new players, on various platforms, locked in minute-by-minute competition to expose, investigate and hold to account anyone in public life.There is even enough space and expertise for whole squads of experts to debate the merits of individual television shows!

Peace activists dream of a world where schools and hospitals are fully resourced, but the Air Force has to run a cake stall to buy bombs. So too, those of us who want more and better from political journalism would have it show us and engage us on how we are governed, and how we might be governed, rather than being told Kitchen Cabinet really does have a serious purpose.Imagine if you dare, Annabel Crabb dropping off the depleted public broadcaster like a suffused tick and running Kitchen Cabinet from her own phone and YouTube channel at no cost to anyone but herself. You may say this is the stuff of dreams, you may even say it's unrealistic; but again Crabb doesn't wanna hear it and can't engage, so it must be "bollocks".Mind you, what elevates Crabb above her fellow Age alumnus Bolt is that Crabb doesn't equate all criticism with 'censorship'. She does not do the rounds of all media to moan she is being 'silenced'. She doesn't think there should be no public dissent, as Bolt does; she just thinks she's above it, she just can't engage with it and shouldn't have to.How little it took for the veneer of civility to fall away. How little remains once it has fallen. There's no better time to can a stale program that has failed to meet even the modest objectives set by its host, whose mask of dimply cake-bearing effusiveness has cracked to reveal a snarling diva who simply will not be questioned by the lower orders.