Striking a nerve
Behind the scenes of Q&A with series producer and UTS alumna, Amanda Collinge.
It’s a live-to-air show that encourages people to debate politics and society, and the person who brings you this debate is Amanda Collinge.
Collinge, 54, is the series producer for Q&A, the ABC’s answer to Britain’s Question Time. She’s the one that wrangles all those people, all their minders, to negotiate the show, which host Tony Jones likes to describe as democracy in action.
She makes those phone calls from an office which looks neat as a pin from the visitor’s side of the desk. Beneath her feet is a cascade of manilla folders. On the wall next to her is a vast stained whiteboard, with the names of the powerful, the clever, the famous and the funny, all scheduled for weeks into the future.For the past five years, she’s helped shape one of the surprise hits on ABC1’s schedule. But at the beginning of this year, it began to be clear after the change of government in September 2013 senior ministers no longer felt compelled to be part of the program.
“The previous Labor government for all its faults were willing to be part of the discussion.” But it’s been impossible to get the Prime Minister to appear – only Joe Hockey has been prepared to have a go.
So Collinge and the team decided to beat the traditional political system – and to focus on themes which would also bring in other viewers. And that change in direction then produced what she says is her favourite Q&A program ever, the broadcast from the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land.
Unforgettable. It was an outside broadcast, it opened with yidaki players, led by Djalu Gurruwiwi, representing the four directions of this land and, as a first in prime time, an acknowledgement of country. For Collinge, who is trying to make the panels on Q&A more diverse, the sight of an all-indigenous panel was one achievement on the way to a broader goal.
That commitment to diversity was borne out of her time at the NSW Institute of Technology, a forerunner to UTS. She studied at PLC in Pymble but was already planning her future and, unusually for the time, she planned a gap year before she began her university studies. Two weeks after the HSC, she found herself hitchhiking around Africa.
On her return, she found herself studying Communication with students from a range of backgrounds. Collinge says a key to her world view was the opportunity to work with students of all ages and stages, from all over the world.
“I was looking for less order and [communication] was a continuation of the adventure the gap year had been,” says Collinge.
And even in first year, she started to contribute to the university, first as a writer for the student newspaper NEWSWIT and then as a radio producer and announcer at UTS radio station 2SER, interviewing everyone from student politicians to Zimbabwean mercenaries.
Those are skills which stay with her today and which she took to her first paid job in journalism at Brisbane’s 4ZZZ.FM.
She moved to Triple J radio in Sydney before moving overseas where she built her own media company, selling documentaries to the BBC, Deutsche Welle and SBS Australia. On her return to Australia, Collinge worked as a television reporter for the ABC and SBS on Lateline, Dateline and Insight.
Collinge is often trying to explain that the Q&A audience reflects the Australian electorate on the day of broadcast – and that can surprise panellists.
But her job is to surprise the audience both in the studio and at home – and judging by those scrawls on that stained noticeboard, she will be surprising us for years to come.
Story by Jenna Price
Photography by Kevin Cheung