Chris Smith starts a real conversation on talk radio

Comment from Peter Saxon.

On his Sunday morning program on 2GB and the Nine Radio Network, Chris Smith did something extraordinary for a talk show host. 
He admitted to listeners that he’d changed his mind. It wasn’t so much a Mea culpa as an acknowledgement that the prevailing mood among his listeners had shifted and so had his. 
If a politician had said as much, the opposition media would have called it a “backflip,” a “retreat,” a “backdown.” I call it a welcome show of common sense and a willingness to change one’s position as more facts emerge.
He began the usual comment segment at the top of his show by saying, “When this virus first lobbed here in Australia a lot of people including myself were skeptical about the devastation we would face in this country. I must admit, as this goes on and as the government ramps up economic stimulus assistance packages and locks us down partially I’m not finding as many people in this boat at the moment not as many being sarcastic about what’s going on.”
I was thrilled to hear it. Not because he had come around to my way of thinking but simply because he was thinking… and inviting his listeners to do the same. He had abandoned the partisan politics that 2GB is best known for and instead started a real conversation about the real issues at hand.
By doing so, he embraced the “we’re all in this together” spirit. 
His discussion point for the day was based on an article in the Australian (subscription) written by Steve Waterson in which the author argues that while every effort should be made to isolate and protect the elderly from COVID-19, the young and healthy should not have to pay the price of social distancing measures through an astronomical national debt – and in many cases, have whatever personal wealth they may have accumulated, destroyed through loss of job or business.
As Smith pointed out, it is a very divisive topic. “I knew when I read this article that it would divide listeners.” And it did. But he was determined to let those listeners have their say without undue influence from him. 

As regular readers would know, I abhor partisan politics. I believe it’s killing civil, constructive conversation while it foments division – which is unhealthy for a democratic nation such as ours.
My hope is that the level and tone of discussion of Sunday’s Chris Smith show becomes the new norm at 2GB that lasts long after a solution to COVID-19 is found. In my opinion, the station has been heading in that direction for some time now, picking up momentum since Nine Entertainment took over late last year. Not that it’s become progressive. It remains steadfastly conservative. But with younger talent such as Ben Fordham and Deborah Knight along with veteran, John Stanley, it’s become less combative and more tolerant of a broader range of views – in my opinion. Even Ray Hadley seems to have mellowed in recent years and is acting very responsibly in his commentary regarding COVID-19.

I get the feeling, however, that this did not occur in a vacuum. Some credit must go the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison
Indeed, Monday’s Newspoll shows his approval rating at an all-time high on the back of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What has impressed me about Mr Morrison is that unlike his predecessor, Mr Abbott – and unlike several leaders around the world – he goes out of his way to be inclusive, not divisive. He tries to govern for everyone, including those who voted against him, those who do not share his personal beliefs and would never vote for him or the coalition no matter what he did. I began to formulate this view just before last year’s federal election when even the most optimistic of Liberals thought they were headed for opposition.

There were three occurrences, two in the final days before the election and one last August amidst the Israel Folau standoff with Rugby Australia… three opportunities, none of them of his making, to demonstrate why he might be the type of leader voters could rely on to do the “right thing.” 

The first opportunity was the article published in the Daily Telegraph and Brisbane’s Courier Mail accusing then opposition leader Bill Shorten of using the story of his working-class mother of how, when she was a young mum, sacrificed her ambition to study law so that her children got a good education instead. But the those tabloids took him to task for failing to mention the fact that in her 50’s his mother went on to realise her dreams – as if, somehow, that detracted from her enormous personal achievements and Bill Shorten’s credibility.
Genuinely shocked by the story, a teary-eyed Shorten was garnering a lot of sympathy from the other news outlets and voters on both sides of politics, including the PM. 
Scott Morrison said he understood the hurt caused to Mr Shorten by the story. “I mean, Bill lost his mother five years ago and I can understand that would have upset him a great deal. I can only extend my best wishes to him.
“This election is not about our families. It’s not about our mums or our dads or kids or our wives, as great as they are, it’s about the choice between Bill Shorten and myself as Prime Minister.
“And I know that Bill and I would very much want to keep focused on that choice, not on our families,”
 said Scott Morrison.
The second opportunity to come out of the blue was the death of Bob Hawke. Scott Morrison’s statement, made with hours of the news, was more generous and from the heart than anyone on the Labor side, including Bill Shorten or Paul Keating, was able to express.
“Bob Hawke was a great Australian who led and served our country with passion, courage, and an intellectual horsepower that made our country stronger,” said Morrison in part of the statement. “We remember him for his unique capacity to speak to all Australians as one – from everyday battlers to business leaders. His larrikinism was a big part of that.”
I wrote at the time: If that’s a true reflection of what Scott Morrison admires and aspires to as Prime Minister, then it can only bode well for the country. In looking for leadership, Australians respond to those who have the capacity to show generosity to their opponents when it is due. In my view Scott Morrison won a lot of votes among the undecided by instinctively doing the “right thing” when the circumstances called for it.
The third opportunity came when Mr Morrison was asked, this time as Prime Minister, to comment on Israel Folau’s inflammatory views on homosexuals by 7News. Morrison, who like Folau, is a member of the Pentecostal Church (albeit a very different branch) had this to say, “I’m a Prime Minister and it’s not my job to be making these sorts of proclamations. I’m elected to run a country not to run a church or provide a running commentary on people’s theological positions.”

It’s been a long time since an Australian Prime Minister has earned such broad respect across the political spectrum as Scott Morrison has with his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. That’s not to say that there haven’t been missteps made on his watch. But by and large, he’s taken the politics out of it and devised a plan that attempts to save lives along with as much of the silverware that can be salvaged.
Most importantly, he has made a strong attempt to articulate a very complex situation and bring the public along with him.

If a leader’s job is to set the tone and bring the country together, then our PM is making a good fist of it. I’m pleased that most of the radio I’ve heard over the past few weeks has been more positive than alarmist while strongly advising their listeners to follow the current safety procedures.

At radioinfo we’ve felt thrilled and privieged to be able to publish several stories about how our undustry has helped communities come together – if not physically then logistically and through random acts of kindness.

Peter Saxon


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