Tony Jones bows out as the permanent and founding host of Q&A next Monday night, ending 12 seasons on the ABC.
Relocating to China in January with with Sarah Ferguson, who becomes ABC’s bureau chief in Beijing, he will maintain links with the broadcaster that he has called home for 33 years -including as an occasion fill-in host.
But if he has a parting wish to ABC management, it is that his successor Hamish Macdonald and the team are given a better timeslot. Much has changed since he show premiered in 2008, including audience habits.
“I certainly hope, as we’ve asked for a long time, that the ABC gives us a better timeslot, because of the rise of streamers and watching TV dramas, which I do myself at that time of the evening,” he tells TV Tonight.
“The pressure on Free to Air Television has become greater and greater to attract new audiences. I do think we’re on a little bit too late in the evening and often not on at the time we’re scheduled to be on.
“Our friendly colleagues on Four Corners, 7:30, Australian Story or Media Watch sometimes go just a little bit longer than usual. Cumulatively when you put it all together, we end up being on 10 minutes later than we should have been, on a regular basis. It’s very hard for people to sustain their interest through to very late in the evening.
“My strong suggestion to the management will be to do what we’ve asked for, for some time: put the program on much earlier on a different night, most likely.
“I hope they will go down that path.”
“Kevin Rudd… sat on a stool like Dean Martin and his old TV show, but without a glass of whiskey”
Jones had been Lateline host when producer Peter McEvoy commandeered him for Q&A. It was a much different presentation style back in 2008, but the principle was the same.
“The very first Q&A was with the brand new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. He sat on a stool like Dean Martin and his old TV show, but without a glass of whiskey, and took questions from a Live audience. I stood behind a podium next to him. It was a weird setup,” he recalls.
“It’s a bit more sophisticated these days but the basic setup hasn’t changed very much. It’s usually five panelists, an audience of a few hundred people sitting in front of us asking questions. That basic model has proven to be very durable.”
“What we don’t know, is what’s going to happen when we throw back to a questioner.”
The show riffs on a ‘town hall’ forum where members of the public can ask questions of some of the nation’s top minds and decision-makers. Audience members submit questions in advance before the Q&A team decide which will comprise the program.
“We know in advance what most of the questions are. What we don’t know, is what’s going to happen when we throw back to a questioner. ‘Are you satisfied with that answer? Do you want to hear more? Or do you want to respond to that?'” he explains.
“Those are often the best moments of the program: when you hear somebody asked a question they’ve got in their hand and then go into spontaneous mode and tell a politician or someone on the panel why it is they’ve asked the question and demand a better answer.
“Often we get American panelists, and they say, ‘Boy, I wish we had something like this on American TV.’ And of course they do come from the tradition of the town hall meeting. I say, ‘It wouldn’t be too hard to transform into a kind of national town hall on television.’ I wonder why they don’t do it.
“It’s kind of evidence they’re now living in a true democracy.”
“People who come from other countries are often very envious that something like this doesn’t exist, where they come from. I find too that the audience is often full of new Australians from places like China and Pakistan or somewhere in the Middle East. They’re just amazed actually, at the freedom this demonstrates. To them it’s kind of evidence they’re now living in a true democracy.”
Whilst it has been dominated by politics, there have been single-issue shows, single panelist shows and musical guest spots. In recent years there have been less comedians as panelists, many of whom were arguably strategically placed beside conservative politicians.
“Politicians complained that they were having to compete with fast-witted, stand-up comedians. So we haven’t done that actually very much in recent years, to be honest with you,” Jones reveals.
Unexpected Live TV moments are amongst some of Q&A’s most memorable, such as Sydney plumbing contractor and Vietnam vet Geoff Thomas who asked Opposition leader Tony Abbott if he would support gay marriage, on behalf of his son.
“He became a meme as many really good questioners do”
“It was an amazing moment and he became a meme as many really good questioners do. It was fascinating to see so many people in the rest of the country get behind him spontaneously. That often happens actually,” Jones recalls.
But there have also been wayward moments… a shoe thrown at John Howard, a student protest in the audience and the infamous 2015 incident when Zaky Mallah openly advocated for Australian Muslims to join ISIS in Syria (Jones called it “out of line” during the broadcast). The latter led to an independent investigation and PM Tony Abbott banning his ministers from appearing.
“It was some time after that Tony Abbott referred to the audience, and maybe the program itself, as being a ‘leftie lynch mob’ and banned his ministers from coming on for a considerable length of time. I don’t think our audiences actually went down during that period. I don’t remember that we were terribly badly damaged,” he continues.
“Not being able to get senior politicians to come on the program is a problem”
“But not being able to get senior politicians to come on the program is a problem, because one of the core missions, if you like, is to allow people the chance to question the decision-makers at the top level of government. So when that’s denied to you for one reason or another, it does affect the program.
“Some people have said the program would be better off if it didn’t have politicians but in actual fact, we always have a larger audience when we do have politicians on. So it’s a little bit counterintuitive.”
Jones adds, “Scott Morrison is a new prime minister and given time maybe he will come on but it won’t be in my tenure.”
Also departing with Jones is founding producer Peter McEvoy with former News Breakfast producer Erin Vincent to lead a new era with Hamish Macdonald. Jones looks forward to them evolving the show with their own style and talks down any notion of a legacy.
“I’d like the show to just continue for a very long time”
“I’d like the show to just continue for a very long time, that would be enough of a legacy. I don’t especially want, ‘I’ll take that as a comment’ on my gravestone. But it’s probably inevitable, when I do finally cark it, someone will put that in a column when they’re describing what my legacy was.
“I hope it’s greater than that. I hope some contribution to public debate, to public democracy, to openness and transparency, is the legacy.”
Q&A season final 9:35pm Monday on ABC.