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Crabb’s cosy Kitchen Cabinet returns, but is it dangerous propaganda?

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When I first saw promos for Annabel Crabb’s cooking with politicians show Kitchen Cabinet back in 2012, my first reaction was something along the lines of “what fresh hell is this?”

If watching amateurs cooking on MasterChef, Junior MasterChef and Celebrity MasterChef wasn’t enough, we were going to have to endure the ABC’s version: Pollie MasterChef, with Crabb’s bubbly effervescence there to offset some of the least charismatic cooks to ever grace our screens.

Had politics become so strongly about personalities that we needed to see our politicians in this fluffy format on the national broadcaster? Was the ABC really jumping onto the blockbuster cooking show bandwagon by awkwardly bringing politics into the kitchen?

But Crabb’s skills as a host, and the openness of the format, have proven more compelling and revelatory than I’d expected. The show found its groove immediately: the cooking element always took a backseat to a casual and often very personal discussion of a politician’s career and their motivations.

There have been plenty of people disappointed that Crabb’s interviews are so softball. In a widely discussed article last year Amy McQuire called the show “junk food journalism“, and labelled the show “insidious propaganda”. Fairfax TV critic Ben Pobjie wrote:

“What a government minister is like at home – or in the kitchen – is irrelevant to the country: what matters is what they do. And the more we get to know them personally the more we fall for the lie that ‘what they’re really like’ is important.”

These criticisms emerged after last year’s episode featuring former Immigration Minister and now Treasurer Scott Morrison. Critics were angered that the ABC gave this very friendly half hour platform to a man who, for years, famously evaded important questions about the treatment of asylum seekers. It was pretty difficult to watch this person, responsible for some pretty severe human rights abuses, cheerfully cook a Sri Lankan curry (totally not a calculated move on his part…) and talk about his faith, family and moral code, largely unchallenged.

With last week’s episode featuring Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, the same criticisms came up again, particularly when people started gushing over how forthright, honest and likeable they found Lambie. Yes, the same woman who last year said the Grand Mufti of Australia should be forced to wear an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet.

Many critiques of the show tend to come down to the idea that it’s poor journalism, which is a bit of a misnomer: the show isn’t journalism and can’t be judged on that basis.

Crabb’s background in political reporting and commentary makes these interviews, as softball as they are, consistently engaging and entertaining. This show isn’t about drilling politicians for tough answers — there are other places on the ABC for that format of interview. In fact, it’s not even really a show about politics directly; it’s more broadly about culture. (Although, obviously most of our elected representatives come from pretty similar backgrounds.)

Pobjie is mostly right: what a government minister is like is irrelevant to the country in an individual respect. But it’s a worthwhile cultural exercise to attempt to understand people in power and what might motivate their actions, even if Crabb only uncovers that occasionally.

Through these individual conversations, audiences are offered a chance to understand the attitudes and cultures which shape policy and the opinions taken on by elected representatives across the country. That’s inherently valuable, both culturally and politically, and cannot be achieved to the same extent in news or current affairs journalism.

Kitchen Cabinet is obviously useful to politicians wanting to soften or spice up their image. But I’m troubled by the idea that voters are apparently so unable to separate policy and personalities that they’ll think “Scott Morrison seems like a nice man to have lunch with — he wouldn’t do anything bad to desperate people!”

It’s true that probing and cynical journalism is often thin on the ground in Australia — although as a national broadcaster, the ABC still does a pretty decent job — and it’s true that we need more outlets and writers who will expose power imbalances and the human cost of the decisions made by those in power. But Kitchen Cabinet doesn’t come at the cost of this kind of reporting.

In an interview with Crikey last year, veteran political reporter Laurie Oakes offered a simple but clear perspective:

“If all we had was the [kind of interview done by Kitchen Cabinet] we wouldn’t be well served. But if we didn’t have it we wouldn’t be well served either.”

I hope people who watch Kitchen Cabinet do so with their own sense of cynicism and understanding of the purpose of the program and the role Crabb is playing. It comes with its dangers, but it’s a compelling and worthwhile piece of television.

44 responses to “Crabb’s cosy Kitchen Cabinet returns, but is it dangerous propaganda?

  1. I quite take your point. Having worked in the same building and before, I think know what I am talking about. I was cynical myself but now I agree with your take. Do people realise the vulnerability that the pollies expose themselves to? But please don’t take Mr Oakes as the Go to man. Never met her but she does a good interview and no I am not buying the cookbook!

  2. The sycophantic Crabb in her Alice In Wonderland clobber with her ‘delightful desserts’ flushing at a politicians door is reason to change the channel to anything. Even blank.

  3. Kitchen Cabinet is as irritating and insulting as Master Chef. If these bastards in parliament are entitled to their bit of soft sell propaganda, then so are the faceless refugees in Manus and Nauru, but do the refugees get it? Do they hell. I’m only sorry Ms Crabb didn’t take the opportunity to put Scott Morrison on the lavatory for three days straight. I certainly would have. Her show is a horrible piece of theatre. I’ve watched about a quarter of them. Not any more.

  4. I like when asked by Annabel Crab about Senator Eric Abetz , Jaque Lambie bowed her head and whispered he is my personal friend .
    Just heard it. It all show .What matters is helping the Electorate .
    You have to make outlandish comments ,to get heard .LIBERALS has NEWS .CORP oops news,com.
    One must be judged by Actions ,not just pretty words

  5. I am a keen polly watcher and I find Kitchen Cabinet very useful. One gets all sorts of useful insights in a framework which can be quite disarming for the participants and finally quite revelatory. Some may be more canny and guarded but so what. It makes a big change from the political slanging matches we get the rest of the time which, I might say, teach us nothing.

  6. I felt the same way about Elle McFeast’s (Libbi Gore’s) efforts to make the sad grey politicians of the early Howard years appear human. She was trying to get a rise out of them (dancing on Downer’s desk, for instance), but their willingness to play along with the joke made them seem like decent people. We all knew better 🙂

  7. Until I read the criticism of Annabel in this ‘Daily Review’ edition, I had never thought anything about Annabel except that
    I liked her and her gentle program.
    Now, I have begun to think about the butter-soft manner in which she treats some of the politicians I personally can’t abide.
    And to think…I’ve always had a soft spot for Mary Poppins.

  8. This isn’t serious political journalism – but isn’t meant to be either. I think of it as entertainment that incidentally shows us something about the persons who runs our country. I wish I could say the same thing about the last Leaders debate. Sigh.

  9. I find Crabb’s on-screen gushing persona intensely irritating, but that aside, I take issue with the premise that we need to ‘understand’ politicians from a personal or psychological perspective. On the contrary, I think if they have a moral code, as Morrison supposedly claimed, they need to explain how their political actions line up with their principles. Crabb’s show nauseates me because she never asks hard questions or holds them to account. I don’t give a rat’s arse about what Kevin Rudd or Christopher Pyne like to cook for dinner, but I am interested in how they might explain the alignment of their actions with their principles. How can Morrison or Dutton explain their treatment of asylum seekers in the light of their professed Christianity? A personal take on a politician doesn’t need to be anodyne fluff, as this show patently is.

    1. yeah I agree, she lets them get away with blue murder when as a journalist she could skillfuly tackle the bullsh*t coming outta their mouths.

    1. @ CB – nothing more infuriating than an intelligent, classy woman – is there mate? And particularly annoying when they are so much smarter than we are.

    2. that made me laugh! she pisses me off too. its just the cultivated cutsey girly coquettishness that drives me nutz.

  10. I agree with Golden Oldie: sometimes you can learn revelatory things about politicians when not coming at them from the hostile hard reporter persona. You can see – as with Scott Morrison – his hypocrisy. I think Ben Neutze is right on point in this article. This is a show that is doing something quite different from commentary or reporting or stock standard political interviewing. And lay off Annabel’s personality and clothes, would you all? Did Andrew Denton get this sort of criticism about his occasional too-much-information blunders or soft-voice fawning or hideous purple shirts? No!

  11. I reckon it’s the Stockholm syndrome in drag…and with smoerrbrod or wotever they have in Stockholm. Altho our Annabel is a a clever and caustic creature when she wants to be…

  12. Kitchen Cabinet was just part of the ABC Lite policy of Mark Scott aided and abetted by his senior managers. All fluff and no substance. Who gives a rats about the personalities of politicians. There have been no revelations. Crabbe is one of the highest paid journalists at the ABC and one would have hoped the money on this show could have put her journalistic talents to the test. Instead you have an ABC keen on ratings literally delivering meringue in frilly skirts. Unfortunately the new CEO who was employed despite having no experience in journalism nor any in program creation is unlikely to be serving up anything an audience could get their teeth into. And sorry for the food metaphors.

  13. Asserting that the show’s purpose has inherent value is not an argument. What specific insights into the drives and values of politician’s actions has Kitchen Cabinet presented, Ben?
    It’s a sign of how broken our political culture is that this show about celebrities is dressed up as having something to do with policy.

    1. @MichaelChristie – You are obviously putting your own spin on Crabb’s show. I don’t recall any claim or even inference that the show has anything at all to do with policy. Comprehension of what one hears and sees is a rare thing these days.

      1. Indeed. I did read Ben Neutze’s article closelyMike M . See if you can spot the reference to policy from the article in this paragraph: ‘Through these individual conversations, audiences are offered a chance to understand the attitudes and cultures which shape policy and the opinions taken on by elected representatives across the country. ‘

  14. Perhaps one should look at how often a snippet of Kitchen Cabinet makes the regular news.

    Jacqui Lambie’s views are easier to understand if one watches Kitchen Cabinet than if one watches her appearance this week on Q&A.

    One sees a great deal of Tanya Plibersek on Q&A, in Question Time, 7:30 Report and the News, but Kitchen Cabinet told us things about her that none of these other programs have revealed.
    We have to judge whether or not a politician is lying to us. How they relate to Annabel Crabb in a relaxed, domestic situation is definitely a help in understanding their character and where they have come from.

  15. I think it is instructive that those who comment only take exception to conservative pollies being given an opportunity to humanise their image with Crabb’s format. Perhaps Crabb should only entertain leftist thinkers, like the rest of the ABC, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the bleeding heart, self appointed moral guardians that, it would seem, constitute the majority of viewers.

    I’m fairly certain very few viewers will be forming their voting intentions based on the content of “Kitchen Cabinet”. Crabb, however, generally makes a pretty good job of the light hearted format which is intended to be more entertainment than hard hitting journalism. Surely Crabb is entitled to flirt with this entertaining format? Or must all ABC programming be as relentlessly dour and boring as Crabb’s elitist critics?

    1. oh yes keep it lighthearted and then just at the right moment go for the jugular, it could be a real showstopper.
      Unfortunately it is the most saccherine mawkish syrapy excuse to cosy up to bigots misogynists homophobes and racists.

  16. This show and crabb in general shit me to tears. The ABC wastes time on this that could be better spent on …well, just about anything.

    1. @Billgrant – Annabel Crabb is a shining light of erudite language in a sea of journalistic ignorance. No doubt, given your opening sentence, you identify with the latter.

    2. I agree. We are subjected to an endless shit stream of british tat from QI to midsommer murders and can we waste money on what the pigswill of Austrlaian reperesentative govt have their snouts into in their kitchens when theyre not scamming the public purse from Joe hockeys $10,000 cabcharge that he didnt want published because it would compromise his security(mmm going to that canberra winery so many times…lol) or Bronny hiring cars and choppers for liberal fundraisers or helping themselves to the public teat in retirement.

  17. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

    Many people in parliament have gone through student politics together and are very good friends including journalists.

    The sad reality is that there are many wolfs in sleeps clothing from both major parties.

    That requires decent journalists.

  18. Still aghast at Tony Abbotts last outing on this show…..not so much what he said as his body language. His legs were sprawled out straight under the table so his lunch guest had to tuck hers in to get out of his way and he was leaning forward over table with his arms taking up more than reasonable space. Either ill mannered or “blokey” dominant behaviour. ..probably both.

  19. Can she please hire someone who can advise her how to dress with some style instead of looking like a leftover ‘housewife’ from the 1950s?

    1. Haven’t you got anything better to contribute than an insult about Crabbe’s dress sense? How boring Brian, you couldn’t get past style to critique substance?

    2. I think you’ve missed the point. She is a wolf dressed as Red Riding Hood, to lull the pollies into a false sense of security before she sinks her teeth in 😀

  20. Perhaps the sentiment of Kitchen Cabinet reflects an element of hypocrisy in all our lives where our day jobs are a poor reflection of – and are often a compromise of – our personal ethics, social justice and spirituality. We are all servants and are required to tow the line of our employers and mostly do so in order to meet our personal commitments, needs and wants in the precious little personal time we are given. Some amongst us are sufficiently fortunate or driven, that they can simplify their lives or compromise themselves more to accelerate their personal freedom. Politicians are seldom exceptions to this burden of compromise.
    Perhaps Annabel’s gentle program exposes these shortcomingd and we are galled at seeing something of ourselves in our politicians, an extension of us in our elected representatives.

  21. As a locally produced show, I enthusiastically support the Kitchen Cabinet. It provides viewers an entertaining and worthwhile programme, regardless of your political persuasion and is not the normal mainstream programme genre .
    Love your work Annabel and good on the ABC for having the nous to schedule programme,

  22. You all need to get over yourselves, you don’t have to watch it . But did our Jacqui really say tharpt Abetz is he friend! Gossip girls and boys…OOH!

  23. I’ve always liked the show for the unintended insights it gives to politicians whose images are shaped by their carefully calculated sound bites on mainstream media: Joe Hockey did a big boys’ BBQ and didn’t provide Crabb with any vegetarian option; Abbott’s macho/aggro body language was still on display at home; Lindsay Tanner had no art on the walls of his modest house; Bill Shorten was so saccharine he came across as a wimp; Anna Burke tried so hard she catered for 20 people; Tanya Plibersek confirmed her strength. It reminds us that our leaders are ordinary people – sometimes too ordinary for me – whom we expect to show principle-centred leadership. It’s a big ask and Crabb with her skilful probing reminds us why they so frequently fail to deliver.

  24. I watched the Lambie interview and it made my skin crawl. I rememebr how Lambie squeezed some processed tube sauce over the Salmon and I also think it so bizarre we are treated to a “girls only” ball gown display from Lambie’s closet.
    I remind readers there is ONLY one thing that drives policians who “serve in public office” and that is an unbridelled lust for power, the getting of it and gaining of it and the maintaining of it are really what we are treated to in our “democratic” govt.
    As for Scott Morrison cooking Sri Lankan after returning refugees to their torturers in Sri Lanka against our signed international obligations??
    There is nothing warm and fuzzy about a man “of faith” abusing power to silence the desperate and needy. He is an appalling traversty of a Minister much like Phillip Ruddock as Former Attorney General allowing David Hicks to languish in prison for 7 years under torture and in inhumane conditions with charge. Its why Amnesty international demanded he stopped carrying their badge and why his daughter left australia sickened by his hypocrisy

  25. Thanks for an even handed, thoughtful review Ben Neutze.
    Crabb deserves to be congratulated for a clever show.

  26. Firstly, I think humanising politicians is one of the things Kitchen Cabinet can do, but I think it shouldn’t give us pause at the ballot box. I already knew Jacqui Lambie was more of a human being than her more outrageous pronouncements, but she must be held accountable for her political positions and the way she votes on issues. This is our due diligence as voters. We have to get over the idea that being charmed by a pollie (he/she looks like someone I’d like to have a beer with) is any kind of reliable guide for our personal voting intentions.

    Secondly, I think Kitchen Cabinet is a good balance in the ABC mix for those politicians who complain about Q&A. You know, the ones who hate democracy and wish to rule rather than govern.

  27. Making some massive and inaccurate summations there:
    Saying Scott Morrison was “responsible for some pretty severe human rights abuses” being the most glaring example.

    And if the show’s about ‘warm and fuzzies’, why shouldn’t Morrison get the same treatment as everyone else?

    The writer’s casual, sloppy dismissals betray his political leanings.

  28. Perhaps the author should be invoking scepticism in the show’s audience rather than mere cynicism?

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