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Fresh Crabb for dinner

The ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet has shown us something press conferences can’t – and discovered a star in Amanda Vanstone’s dog

17 March 2012

4:00 PM

17 March 2012

4:00 PM

The ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet has shown us something press conferences can’t – and discovered a star in Amanda Vanstone’s dog

You wouldn’t think many people would hear ‘top political journalist starts new TV show’ and think ‘oh, I hope there’s trifle in it’. You’d be wrong, though, because this is apparently a large enough demographic to justify a new program from the ABC’s Annabel Crabb. Kitchen Cabinet is the latest attempt by the national broadcaster to get something other than a focus-grouped soundbite out of our national politicians, this time using food.

Kitchen Cabinet has a simple enough premise. Crabb invites herself to dinner with members of Parliament and uses food and wine to lure them into speaking candidly and — hopefully — making shocking revelations. She has selected the parliamentarians she considers to be interesting and worthwhile dinner companions. There are 126 MPs; six episodes are currently planned. Draw your own conclusions.

On paper, Kitchen Cabinet looks like a vanity project. Crabb likes to cook — really likes to cook, if the strange title sequence featuring her bathed in soft light while blissfully baking a model of Parliament House is anything to go by — and rarely gets a chance to show off her handiness with a Mixmaster in her day job. It’s also unclear whether the costume department is going for a 1950s housewife look or if that’s just how she dresses.

On the other hand, it’s not a bad gig for the politicians. There are few parliamentarians who can afford to pass up the opportunity to demonstrate that they are people too: ‘Look, human, here I am enjoying food, as is your planet’s custom.’ The drawcard for us is the potential glimpse of the man behind the image; the chance to see, perhaps, guarded people relaxing enough to speak frankly. Crabb hasn’t made a huge intuitive leap in realising that it’s easier to create intimacy over the course of a shared meal than in a 15-minute press conference with 30 other shouting journalists, of course. Having the show in the pollie’s own house — or in Nigel Scullion’s case, on his boat — is a nice touch, as it
presumably makes them relax slightly while giving us the chance to stickybeak into their home decorating choices.

Of course, food and the social mores of sharing a meal play a part in creating the relaxed atmosphere that Crabb is after (as well as giving the show some kind of structure). It’s probably less significant than the sheer amount of time the show takes to film, though. Crabb is presumably sitting round these people’s house/boat/houseboat (you never know) for five or six hours asking personal questions. Although MPs are pretty good at straight-facedly repeating the same sentence in response to every question at a press conference, surely this tactic gets difficult to sustain after the second or third hour. ‘Where did you get that lovely painting?’ ‘Well, thank you for the question, and let me reassure you that I will not be allowing this painting to distract my team from delivering the big reforms for our nation’s future’.

So does it work? Going by the first few episodes, yes. The first episode is a one-off double act featuring the underappreciated comic stylings of Christopher Pyne and Amanda Vanstone. Vanstone is here because Pyne can’t cook — you get the distinct impression he doesn’t do his own ironing, either. Within minutes Kitchen Cabinet delivers on its promise of interesting personal stories: it turns out Vanstone’s dog bit Pyne’s kid once. The dog is demonstrably fine; we have to take Pyne’s word for it that the child survived. Later, it comes out that the dog — which, by the way, Vanstone feeds lovingly hand-made biscuits — also had a crack at a visiting ambassador. Surely at some stage you’re required to muzzle it? I guess not in Adelaide.

The show works without Vanstone and her hilarious attack dog, though. In the second episode, Crabb and Nigel Scullion, the Nationals’ Senator for the Northern Territory (I had to look it up), spend an intimate afternoon zooming around a river on a rickety boat, killing crabs and telling jokes about STDs. We learn that Scullion has been an avid hunter since his childhood and has a rakish disregard for protected species laws. He’s also entertainingly literal. When asked how he adjusted to life in politics, Crabb definitely thinks Scullion is reaching for a fairly intense metaphor when he replies, ‘by finding things to kill’. Turns out he winds down after Question Time by terrorising the Canberra wildlife. Well, whatever works.

These anecdotes, while hilarious, aren’t all Kitchen Cabinet has to offer. Crabb is deft enough to draw genuine intimacy out of her subjects. Over the course of the meal in Adelaide, Pyne and Vanstone are worn down into revealing a glimpse of their true feelings about their experiences under the Howard government. The conversation is startlingly honest and considerably more interesting than the practised performances we’re used to seeing. They also provide a glimpse of the inner workings of the political parties. From Scullion, we learn about the faceless men of the Nationals, who not only exist but apparently picked Barnaby above him for the Senate leadership — who knew? A traditional interview wouldn’t come close to extracting this
kind of insight.

Crabb has succeeded admirably with Kitchen Cabinet. The problem that the show faces is the fact that the more influential the politician, the less likely they are to agree to appear on such a dangerous program. There’s no chance we’ll see a major party leader cooking dinner. This isn’t just because Tony Abbott feeds only on the plankton he manages to swallow while ocean swimming; rather, it’s a symptom of how tightly controlled our leaders’ public images have become. We should stop letting them get away with it. One way to start is to make appearance on this show compulsory for any aspirant Prime Minister. It certainly might make people think twice about leadership challenges.

Lucy Saunders is studying law at the University of Sydney.

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