Television Annabel Crabb meets Scott Morrison
After an unpromising start, the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet is cookin’, a primetime hit show averaging more than a million viewers an episode
Anyone who has been there knows that interviewing on television is an art that has nothing to do with democracy. As veteran American TV journalist Barbara Walters said, “When you’re interviewing someone, you’re in control. When you’re being interviewed, you think you’re in control, but you’re not.”
In Kitchen Cabinet, returning this week, Annabel Crabb is firmly in the driver’s seat as she once again eats and talks food, recipes and the problems of political life as a guest in the homes of our elected representatives from both sides of the fence.
The idea is based on the accepted wisdom that luncheon bookings with the political class not only cement social relationships, they can turn into anthropological studies, and be personally and emotionally revealing. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer and politician, who gained fame as an epicure and gastronome.
When Crabb started out on what has become a rather epic culinary journey, she said she wasn’t sure why this kind of personal disclosure sometimes occurred. “Perhaps it’s because the arrival of a plate helps them to forget the pad and pencil that lies — either literally or figuratively — between interviewer and interviewee.” Like hell it does. Much of the fun of the show is in watching politicians attempting to act oh-sonatural and believable in a domestic context while Crabb manoeuvres them for a killing thrust of that figurative writing implement.
When it started rather quietly on the ABC’s second channel a couple of years ago, the show was just a little lame, an exercise in awkwardness. Crabb battled as much as the politicians in trying to turn often rather inanely obdurate conversation into entertaining television.
But never to be taken lightly, Crabb and her producers persevered and the shows improved: her audience grew, the friendliness became less grating and Crabb became more cheekily assertive. (She also got a bigger budget, better lighting and more cameras.) Her most recent series have averaged more than a million viewers an episode and are now a part of prime-time ABC programming, with no shortage of pollies willing to wine and dine the attractive and gregarious Crabb.
“The more comfortable you make someone feel, the better interview you’re ultimately going to get,” US talk show host and news anchor Katie Couric once remarked. Crabb uses all the tricks to relax her wily politicians, meeting her subjects on their level by bringing a cake or a pudding — she’s an inspired home baker — and matching them for mood, energy levels and even body language. She’s now fully adept at the subliminal cues that show she’s fully present in the conversation, not simply treading water waiting for the next cue.
She’s especially good at moving it all along, defusing awkwardness with a small moment of joshing humour. And she always seems poised to change direction based on what happens in the interchange — regardless of what questions she and her producer may have contemplated beforehand.
It’s obvious, too, that she is practised at listening, not just to the words her subjects utter but also the tone in which they are said, the pauses and nuances of the answer, and what’s left unspoken. Sometimes a small smile flickers around her lips, signalling the thought that “Oh, that’s a good bit right for the edit right there”.
She often ingenuously clutters her conversation with a slight confusion of interrupted thoughts, then suddenly pops the tightly coiled question. It’s a killer technique.
At other times she simply looks at her quarry quietly and calmly as they fuss around the food preparation, and you can almost hear her thoughts, tinkling like distant wind chimes. Crabb’s eyes sparkle with what seems like a genuine liking for her subjects, but lurking beneath is the shrewd judgment so apparent in her columns, only just masked by that seemingly guileless flirtatiousness.
She has teased out some wonderfully penetrative remarks, such as this riff from Malcolm Turnbull after he lost the Liberal Party leadership some years ago. “If you are completely and utterly lacking in a sense of self-awareness, and you are absolutely oblivious to what everyone else thinks, you are perfectly suited to being a political leader,” he told her. “On the other hand, if you are dripping with empathy and you take seriously what other people think, then you run the risk of being seriously hurt.” Then, after a pause, he asked rhetorically: “How can you be an effective political leader and be a human being?” Mmmmm.
In the new season, Crabb looks for such insights from the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s senator Ricky Muir, who takes her for a ride in two vehicles; Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who invites her to his off-the-grid farm and creates every element of his meal from scratch; and Olympic gold medallist and senator Nova Peris, who entertains Crabb in her family’s country nestled in Kakadu which is, of course, teeming with crocodiles.
But first up it’s the Liberal Party heavy hitter and new Treasurer Scott Morrison, filmed before the recent leadership spill, who may be famous for his bellicose but successful stopping of the boats campaign but who remains somewhat personally unknown to most of us. “People describe him as ambitious, uncompromising, even arrogant; I’ve also heard compassionate, devout and a Tina Arena fan,” Crabb says at the start. She bakes a pavlova-like dessert: two meringues sandwiched together with orange slices, chopped nuts, whipped double cream and, her current culinary obsession, date syrup. As she suggests, it’s hard on the outside and gooey on the inside — but is her host?
It turns out he’s boisterously blokey and hardly ever stops blushing and smiling, bravely attempting cutely lame jokes, greeting her at the door with flowers and a remark about politicians and doorknocking.
Later there are many gags about his time as immigration minister (a portfolio his wife dreaded him gaining), and some faint jests about maritime “operational matters” and “onwater issues”. They lunch at a beach house his family regularly rents on the NSW south coast, Morrison, while his knife skills are rudimentary, at ease in the kitchen as he prepares a Sri Lankan fish curry, chapattis and samosas — or as his staff call them, “ScoMosas”.
A reasonably relaxed Morrison talks of his wife and their long battle with IVF to have a family, his career as a child actor, and rather drolly about his time at university where he studied economics and thought the political types were “weirdos”. Then he’s quizzed on his Christian faith (he was “a Uniting Church kid” like Crabb herself, it turns out) and whether or not he is annoyed that Peter Costello calls him a “Happy Clapper” (He just smiles and says, “You’ve got to laugh at yourself”).
He’s disarming about his failed stint as the managing director of Tourism Australia, the man who oversaw the controversial but successful “So where the bloody hell are you?” tourism campaign — he admits to unleashing Lara Bingle on the world — losing his $350,000-a-year job after what insiders described as a bitter falling-out with the then tourism minister, Fran Bailey. Crabb mischievously points out the irony in his first big job being to encourage people to come to Australia and his first big political one to encourage them not to.
He comes across as oddly vulnerable, reasonable, patient and while good jolly company just a little world weary, aware that we must all deal with what he calls “life’s bitter hands”. Of the job itself, the moral complexities and Machiavellian deviousness of politics, the spiteful name calling and regular political assassinations, he says, “I’ve really learned not to care; and I really don’t that much.” In the end he reminded me of that old joke — economists are people who are good with figures but don’t have the personality to be accountants.
Kitchen Cabinet, ABC, 8pm.
Host Annabel Crabb, above, and with Scott Morrison, her first guest in the new series of Kitchen