Goat’s Cheese and Leaky Boats: 20 Questions Gala

Traditionally, the Wheeler Centre Gala starts our year of events at the Town Hall; this year is no exception, though we gave the format a radical twist, polling voters on 20 binary questions, from the trivial to the significant. Here are just some of the highlights of a night that included a host chosen by popular vote (Sally Warhaft), audience questions put to the vote, and a Brunswick man whose dreadlocks were lopped off, live.

The questions were counted down from the least important to the most. The least? Party pies versus tapas. The results? 86% of voters chose tapas, a result that commentators Bernard Salt, Sophie Black, Ray Martin and George Negus saw as unsurprising for a Wheeler Centre audience.

‘It’s a very inner-city audience,’ said KMPG business advisor and social commentator Bernard Salt, who said they were largely ‘PUMCINS’, an acronym he’s invented to describe the professional urban middle class in nice suburbs. ‘You can tell if you come from a PUMCIN household, because there is goat’s cheese in the fridge,’ he said. (A quick on-the-spot poll showed that many attendees had goat’s cheese at home.)

George Negus argued that party pies can be tapas too, while Ray Martin judged party pies are ‘a bit pussy’. Martin said that he suspected most voters said tapas because they think it’s the right thing to say, but they’re ‘closet party pie eaters’.

Voting with the tribe

This theme – that people vote the way they think they’re expected to to fit in with their ‘tribe’ – was a recurring one throughout the night, one that often came up when discussing cultural questions. For instance, 82% of voters chose bookshops over online bookselling, but the commentators were sceptical – especially because most people voted online. ‘You’d really come down to the truth if you checked people’s credit card statements,’ said Sophie Black. And in the question of Australian-made versus imported, 81% chose Australian made, though the commentators doubted that this would be reflected at supermarket (or indeed, car yard) cash registers. ‘We know the button we should be pushing,’ said Bernard Salt.

Men versus women: Women won

One of the curious cultural results was the question of men versus women – which could be interpreted any number of ways. The voters were 77% in favour of women, though the gender divide of participants was roughly equal. But looking at the results more closely, 90% of women chose women. The commentators differed on why that might be the case.

‘I thought the question was about being pro or anti women, and women need all the votes they can get,’ said Sophie Black. George Negus, who said he had been the first male feminist in Australia, said that he personally prefers women to men. ‘I don’t like getting a shaving rash when I kiss someone,’ he joked. Ray Martin suggested that men are more generous. ‘I would have thought women would have liked us a bit more,’ he mused.

Privacy versus security

The question of privacy versus security was one of a few more serious cultural questions that were demographically skewed in terms of age – with both older and younger people choosing security. Eighty-one percent of voters overall chose privacy as the greater priority.

‘Young and old people feel vulnerable,’ said Bernard Salt. ‘Those in their economic prime feel most secure.’ Sophie Black suggested that perhaps under 18s value their privacy less because they’re the generation who grew up online.

Patriotism, journalism and the ABC

The under 18s were also the most patriotic, when asked to choose between patriotism and journalism. Overall, the audience voted overwhelmingly in favour of journalism – 86%. ‘As a journalist, I wouldn’t have thought we’d have that kind of support,’ said Ray Martin. He wondered if the under 18s voting in the poll were rebelling against their parents by voting for patriotism. George Negus attributed it to today’s kids growing up in the era of border protection as a big issue, which makes patriotism seem like a good thing.

Both Martin and Negus took the opportunity to reflect on Tony Abbott’s comments against the ABC and the government complaints of liberal bias. ‘It’s a sport to knock the ABC,’ said Ray. ‘But in my 40 years, they were more journalists there joined the Country Party or the Liberal Party than the Labor party. There’s no truth to the idea that they’re all card-carrying communists.’

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel journalism. We saw that in the US with 9/11. As Mark Scott said, the most patriotic thing the ABC could do is to tell the truth.’

War-torn homeland versus leaky boat

The question voted the most important was war-torn homeland versus leaky boat – and 71% of voters chose a leaky boat. This result was consistent across all demographics.

‘I don’t think Australians are asked enough to think about whether they would flee their war-torn homeland,’ said Sophie Black.’ I think that asylum seekers are demonised so much that they’re not given that visceral choice. I think the media doesn’t offer people the opportunity to put themselves in their shoes, and I think that’s why people voted [for this].’