News National The real reason Turnbull backed out of Q&A
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The real reason Turnbull backed out of Q&A

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For Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, going ahead with his scheduled Q&A appearance on Monday night would have been risky not only because he has Tony Abbott to worry about.

There’s another, even more powerful figure who may have reacted aggressively to Mr Turnbull honouring his promise to appear – Rupert Murdoch.

On Friday evening, Mr Turnbull confirmed he would cancel his scheduled appearance amid a frontbench boycott of the program in the wake of a controversial episode featuring former terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah.

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But the announcement came only after he kept the country guessing for the best part of a week about whether he would defy the PM’s orders.

Prime Minister Abbott had been very clear in the lead-up to Mr Turnbull’s withdrawal – no frontbenchers are to appear on Q&A until the Ray Martin-led review into the flagship ABC panel show is complete, a process that could take months.

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Veteran current affairs host Ray Martin thinks the government’s Q&A boycott is “silly”. Photo: Getty

Although his review is still underway, the former A Current Affair host said the ban on appearances was “silly” and a “political issue”.

But for all the tough talk from the PM, there’s another influential person in the mix that Mr Turnbull would be reluctant to make an enemy of. For if Tony Abbott’s approval wasn’t important, Rupert Murdoch’s may well be.

The government hit the ABC hard over the public broadcaster’s decision to allow former terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah onto its show to ask a question about proposed new citizenship-stripping powers, but the Murdoch press has gone even harder.

In the wake of Mallah’s appearance, News Corp tabloids were relentless in their attacks, with Brisbane’s Courier Mail famously going so far as to photoshop a Q&A panel full of jihadist terrorists.

If Mr Turnbull was going to stoke internal party divisions by so publicly defying Mr Abbott, would he really want to do so in a way that risked being splashed across the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph waving a Kalashnikov and an Islamic State flag?

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News Corp broadcast its editorial position loud and clear.

Jo Scard, founder of PR firm Fifty Acres, believes that if anyone could have done it, the Communications Minister would have been the one. As a former senior political advisor to the Rudd and Gillard governments, Ms Scard knows a thing or two about getting on the bad side of News Corp.

She told The New Daily that Mr Turnbull had the right public persona and skill set to get away with it.

“Malcolm Turnbull has always been his own man,” she said.

“He’s the sort of person who once he takes a position, is strong enough to defend it and will be clever enough to know how it will play out.”

Ms Scard applied that logic equally to both Mr Turnbull navigating what would have been a hostile Q&A environment and any subsequent questions that might emerge from the Murdoch press.

She said that while News Corp had taken a strong editorial line on the issue, that position could evolve, and even if it didn’t, the fallout for Mr Turnbull likely wouldn’t have “mortally wounded” him.

An evolution might already be underway, with News Corp broadsheet The Australian changing tack on the issue in a development that might have tempted Mr Turnbull to don his leather jacket and ignore the PM’s orders.

The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly wrote last week about how the last-minute enforcement of the boycott prevented Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce from selling his Agricultural White Paper on the previous episode of Q&A.

“It makes no sense. It is arrogant. It treats his ministers as children,” he wrote.

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Barnaby Joyce would’ve liked more notice before the PM put the kibosh on his Q&A appearance.

Mr Joyce himself said it was important that cabinet members followed orders, but made no secret of the fact he didn’t like how it was handled, suggesting it would have been “good to know a little bit earlier“.

The man who took Mr Joyce’s place on the Q&A panel, The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan, spoke along similar lines to Mr Kelly, using the platform to condemn not just the ABC’s handling of the Zaky Mallah affair but also the government’s response.

“The government is in danger of making the sympathy flow against it, making itself the issue,” he said on the program.

Ms Scard said that if she were advising the government, she would use the same rationale as Mr Sheridan.

“His view was that the ABC has apologised and is unlikely to do it again, so it is time to move forward – as a PR advisor that’d be my advice, step back and move on,” she said.

“Put the government’s arguments forward on Q&A, let going on be a personal decision of each and every minister.”

The moment that sparked the Q&A controversy

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