Adventures in dumbocracy: where are the experts on Q&A?

The Q&A audience deserves better. AAP/Dean Lewins

Across Australia tonight, thousands of Australians will aim their tweets at the ABC’s flagship forum Q&A in an attempt to get some brief screen-time on the program. Joining with their tweeps, they will partake in what the show promises to be an “adventure in democracy”. But what these “adventures” actually entail demands questioning in light of the show’s current leanings.

The format of the show is not without merit. Space is opened to the public for engagement usually reserved for journalists. The politician is left with the arduous task of what sociologist Jeffrey Alexander might call performative “failure” or “success” – the presentation of the authentic person.

Contrived debate

Yet despite its potential, something has gone awry.

We are seeing more and more of what Lindsay Tanner has dubbed the “Sideshow Syndrome”. In recent times for instance, the recurring obsession with potential leadership challenges in the press has been concerning. We witnessed this recently on Q&A when Joel Fitzgibbon apparently alluded to change in the ALP leadership – or did he?

But controversy extends beyond the political. We saw this in a recent debate on the program when Archbishop Peter Jensen sat side by side with outspoken feminist comedian Catherine Deveney. The debate that ensued was cringe-worthy – drawing out unwarranted criticisms of both panellists (especially Deveney). However it wasn’t as if the producers couldn’t foresee it.

We would question whether this really is an “adventure in democracy” or simply opinion battling which only inflames already established ideas in the audience – contrived entertainment.

Expert-free zone

The second cause for concern with Q&A is expertise. Since 2008, by our count, we have seen only 5% of panellists who have active research backgrounds present on the show.

We do need to give Q&A credit for the times high profile guests such as Geoffrey Robertson appear. However, when we consider that the arts community and the comedians represent approximately 9% of the panellists who have been on and political social commentators 15%, we wonder what role expertise has in this democracy feast. Our own research into the panellists suggests that it is rare to see a professor of political science, economics, law or even climatology on the show.

Considering that some of the more recurrent questions revolve around the carbon tax, asylum seeking and same sex marriage, it would seem important to use expertise and not just opinions to facilitate debate.

If we look at climate change, we will note with interest a lack of participation from actual climate scientists. While Q&A did have a special in response to the show “I can change your mind on climate change”, it was a sad reflection on the need for contrived “balance”, as Clive Hamilton has argued. Why Australia needed to hear Clive Palmer’s take on climate change is questionable.

What this amounts to is a lack of expertise grounded in research and then linked to public audiences – something SBS’s Insight program does well.

Raising the tone

Expertise plays a central role in democracy. And there is a place for the “citizen-expert”. The idea is for what Heisenberg roughly equated as the “humble-expert” to advise, advocate, clarify and specify during public debates.

This “humble-expert” is someone who has managed to navigate institutional proving grounds (being awarded a PhD, being published in refereed academic periodicals or major academic presses, and being recognised as a peer or colleague by other established experts), but who also understands that his or her knowledge, no matter how deep and wide or impressive, is fundamentally premised on uncertainty.

It is this type of person who brings great value to public decision making because of their expert knowledge but also because of their thinking geared toward managing uncertainty.

If the producers of Q&A were serious about their adventures in democracy, they should seek to include such experts in all of their discussions. This would make the show more productive and could bring it into its fuller potential as a place of critical, enjoyable, and serious political debate for Australia.

Until then, it will just be the contrived gabfest we tweet at each week.

We wish to thank Tom Bridges for assisting in the compilation of research on the show in preparation for this piece.