Questions without answers: The insidious radio silence undermining our democracy

Good government and strong opposition depends on politicians being accountable for their decisions and answering tough questions, writes Rebecca Levingston

Nov 04, 2020, updated Nov 04, 2020
Not so scary: Columnist Rebecca Levingston at her day job - as Mornings host on ABC Radio Brisbane. So why won't politicians answer her questions? (Photo: ABC)

Not so scary: Columnist Rebecca Levingston at her day job - as Mornings host on ABC Radio Brisbane. So why won't politicians answer her questions? (Photo: ABC)

I get rejected regularly. Often it’s by politicians.

Most days I’m asking someone elected by you … to talk to … you.

Sometimes there’s a good reason why they’re not available. Increasingly they’re not available when there are hard questions to answer.

Here’s an example of a recent text exchange between me (RL) and a federal political press secretary (PPS) regarding an incident in immigration detention in Brisbane.

RL: “Hi X, can you please call me re: Kangaroo Point incident.”

PPS: “Hi Rebecca, the Minister isn’t available for an interview sorry.”

RL : “How about tomorrow?”

*several hours pass*

RL: “Any word?”

*several hours pass*

RL: “Hi X, checking in re: interview tomorrow?”

PPS: “Not going to be able to do it at this stage. Will let you know if anything changes.”

RL: “Is there a reason? A reason I can give to listeners?”

PPS: “He isn’t available.”

*several days pass*

RL: “Genuinely not trying to be difficult. Can the Minister find some time this/next week please?”

PPS: “Will have to decline on this one sorry.”

The detainee I spoke to about this incident was subsequently handcuffed, flown interstate without his personal belongings and given no explanation as to why he was relocated. He suspects he’s being punished because he spoke to the media. Refugee advocates would like to know the Immigration Minister’s explanation. Here in the land of the fair go, I reckon it’s a fair question.

Remember, the salary of this politician and press secretary are paid by you. It’s complicated territory, but the public deserves clarity. Yes there’s a relentless news cycle, but a decent question still deserves an answer.

It could easily have been a request about blueberries, boats or a multibillion-dollar budget. They’re just some of the other topics where I’ve failed to get a clear response from an elected politician in the past week. At all levels of government, there’s a move away from giving answers. And that makes for frustrating interviews even when they’re given. Most people don’t want to hear more from politicians and while I understand that, it also worries me. Because it suits politicians too.

Watch the trend in Queensland politics of leaders putting up Facebook live feeds, duly shared by news outlets. The politician has all the control. Correction: the media manager of the politician has the power.

The politician speaks uninterrupted for however long they want. They frame and omit information and eventually journalists get to ask a few questions. Those pesky reporters don’t have microphones so the online/TV/radio audience can’t hear what they’re asking. Their inquiries can be dismissed, rejected and ultimately unanswered. Then the politician walks away. It’s not accountability. It’s not transparency. It’s a problem.

Leigh Sales, host of 7.30 on ABC-TV has asked the Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck more than 12 times for an interview regarding the care of elderly residents through this pandemic. He’s declined.

People often ask me who I vote for. Sometimes listeners accuse me of favouring one side of politics. The next day I’ll be accused of favouring the other. Over the course of the Queensland election campaign, I was accused of being an LNP-loving Greenie who clearly wanted Labor to win.

The truth is … I like truth. I like ideas. I like leaders who are able to articulate an argument. I like good government. I like strong opposition. I like questions. I like answers.

I respect politicians who sometimes say “I don’t know.” Journalists need to have the sense to allow a fair exchange. Truth begets trust.

Donald Trump is very upfront about the media he doesn’t want to talk to.

“You are fake news,” says the 45th President.

Australian politicians may not verbally attack the news media as President Trump does but simply avoiding the media achieves a similar goal – a reduction of political accountability.

Compare the corporate world where Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s push for virtual annual general meetings has prompted a revolt. Shareholders are demanding that publicly listed companies must subject themselves to in-person AGMs to allow investors to properly hold directors to account for their decisions. If investors are worthy of that level of accountability why aren’t voters?

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