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The master of talkback radio

  • 15 May 2007

I regret something I did recently. I rang talkback radio. Granted it was Jon Faine on the ABC, so a refined kind of talkback, not the grubby 3AW or 2GB kind, but I still felt slightly used. The prime minister was taking questions, and I wanted to ask him about Workchoices.

To my surprise I was on the air quickly. I asked Mr Howard what options my partner had after being sacked just before Christmas. She had quarelled with a bullying employer and been summarily sacked. After a few sympathetic pleasantries, the prime minister made the response I'd expected—unless he knew the details of the case he couldn’t comment, there are a few bad employers and plenty of good ones...all the usual platitudes. I was pleased he’d given this predictable response, because I’d prepared my retort in advance.

Yes Mr Howard, I said, there are some bad employers and some good ones. The point of good industrial relations legislation, surely, is not to allow the bad employers to do what they want. Workchoices does allow bad employers to do what they want because it gives them a free hand to dismiss workers. Whatever you suggest otherwise, Mr Howard, there are no protections from unfair dismissal for any worker in a business employing under 100 staff (and precious few for bigger companies if managers are smart enough to invoke the 'operational reasons' defence).

That was going to be my response, and it is a good one. But I didn’t get to say it. Vainly I tried to interject, but Mr Howard is a master of talking over people he doesn’t want to hear from, and as soon as he’d finished it was on to the next caller . I could have smashed the phone!

This case illustrates precisely why politicians like talkback radio. By going on talkback they can appear to be available in an open and unstructured forum, reaching out over the heads of the media to constituents. But far from being open and unmediated, talkback is a highly controlled and contrived forum. Guests like John Howard have the last word, and talkback hosts, Jon Faine included, make sure that they get it. As quantity always seems to win out over quality in mainstream radio, and brevity over depth, the emphasis is on giving as many callers as possible the chance to ask a question.

The result is a