She’s baking for a new crop of politicians this season.
This morning I went to meet Annabel Crabb, and she greeted me with a tin of homemade ginger cake, her “current obsession”, made to Nigella Lawson’s specifications.
It was, of course, delicious.
Baking is just one of the many things Crabb does impressively well, and it’s the tool she uses to loosen up her interview subjects on her show Kitchen Cabinet. Well, that and her humour and extensive political knowledge.
The fifth season of Kitchen Cabinet airs on ABC tonight at 8pm, so I sat down for a chat with the baker herself to discuss the show, cooking, and how the hell one woman manages to fit in a TV show, newspaper columns, books, podcasts, and being a mother to three kids.
So, Annabel, how do you fit all those things in?
You can manage things as long as you do them at different times of the day. Or some of them you can do together!
Parenting and baking you can do together. One of the things I really like about baking is that you can do it while doing other things, you can do it with your children, and at the end of it there’s something useful that you can feed them with.
It’s a fabulous multi-tasking activity. And if you have one of those stupid headset things, you can even do work!
Why did you think breaking bread with politicians would make good TV?
I floated the idea a few times before it really caught on… I thought it would be an interesting thing to do but I didn’t really know how it would work.
In fact, I once proposed it at the Sydney Morning Herald because when you work in print, you think that television’s a doddle. It’s not until you try and make it that you realise it’s really hard and you need 50 people who know what they’re doing. I was thinking, “I’ll just go to their house with my video camera…” What an idiot.
Amanda Duthie [head of comedy, arts, and entertainment at ABC at the time] invited me over for yoyo biscuits and tea and asked if I had any ideas for television programs. And I said, “Just the one.”
The first series was a bit of a crapshoot, not just for us but also for the politicians because it was such a dumb-sounding idea. “I’m going to turn up at your house with a cake and you’re going to let me in, and there’s going to be all these cameras and you’re going to cook something, then we’re going to sit down and talk, also filmed.”
For a lot of politicians in an untested format, that sounded like a risky proposition.
I started with politicians I’d known for a while and they knew I wasn’t going to stitch them up. And the truth about the program is that it is a really benign format. Politicians are usually happy to cooperate because we’re not trying to catch them out or attack them. In my view, if you go to someone’s house you’re polite to them.
What do we learn about politicians by watching them in their natural surroundings?
It’s not a pure journalistic format, you know, because you’re not putting your foot on their throat and saying, “Yes but what about your hypocrisy in this area,” or whatever.
When we see politicians interviewed every day, it’s always in an adversarial context, and you learn a lot about how people behave when they’re under pressure or under attack, but I think, not everyone will agree, but I think you find out a lot of other stuff about people when you watch how they behave when they’re not under attack. It’s a softer form of insight, but it’s insight nonetheless.
When they’re at home, it means you can ask them different kinds of questions — and it means they can answer differently.
What kind of response do you get from viewers to the show?
Some people will watch the show, and they’ll see someone they don’t like and say, “How dare you humanise that person!”
One of the funniest pieces of feedback I ever had from the show was when we put our very first episode of Kitchen Cabinet to air and it was with Christopher Pyne and Amanda Vanstone. It continues to be the episode that everyone remembers — but I got this hilarious Twitter message the next day from a woman whose handle was @CaveLesbian. And she said, “I cannot forgive you for making me like Christopher Pyne a little bit!”
People are passionate about politics. At the moment I’m being absolutely slammed with messages from people saying, “How dare you sit down with [tonight’s subject] Scott Morrison, what about the people in Nauru,” and so on. But politics is a spectrum of people. It’s full of people you either think are fantastic or you can’t stand, depending on your viewpoint. And that is what it should be, that is what a democracy is. Having a range of choices and being free to choose between them.
I think it makes sense to learn about all of them on the same footing. That’s why I don’t go into someone’s homes and go, “I’m taking my personal beliefs along with me and I’ll be nice to someone I agree with and hassle someone I don’t,” because my view isn’t important. It’s the viewers’ view that’s important.
Christopher Pyne was your very first interview, and he’s the subject, along with Anthony Albanese, of the second show in this series. You also wrote the forward to his book — there’s obviously a rapport there.
We’ve returned to Christopher. I’ve known him for a long time. I met him at university, and when I was a reporter at the Adelaide Advertiser I dealt with him a lot. Pyne is interesting, and one of the reasons we went back to him was because I wanted — because politics has been so vicious in the past few years — I wanted to get a bipartisan account of what it’s like in an atmosphere of great political tension and conflict, what it’s like to try and forge a working relationship between enemies. And that’s what they’ve done, Pyne and Albanese.
I love how you suggest in the show that they’re a kind of comedy double-act.
They’re really funny together. Also, they’d hate this, they have virtually nothing in common, but what they do is that both of them came up through hard-fought university politics as members of the left wings of their respective parties. They spent a whole lot of time fighting bitterly with right wingers in their parties, so they both have that incredible insouciance that comes of having survived some really punishing body blows.
And one thing that really entraces me about their friendship/functional relationship is that, in a way, their relationship with each other as sworn and official enemies is more straightforward and predictable and guided by rules of engagement than is each of those men’s relationships with internal adversaries in their own parties. When you’re fighting subterranean wars with people who are supposed to be your colleagues it’s much more guerilla warfare, so we talk about that with them.
And they bicker like lunatics the whole time, so it’s very funny.
Do you think more politicians should work on their interpersonal relationships?
There’s a great history of great adversaries being friends. I remember once going to Clyde Cameron’s house and hearing about his longstanding relationship with the Downer family. Now, Clyde Cameron and Alec Downer (father of Alexander Downer) used to fly back and forth to Canberra and sit next to each other, even though they were completely different politically.
There’s got to be a space in politics for goodwill and one of the tragedies of the past few years, I think because of the hung parliament, was that conflict expanded to fill the entire political field and that was a damaging thing.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that our program became very popular over that time. As a person interested in politics I find it a relief when we get a break from the conflict and get to hear people talking like human beings.
Who surprised you with their cooking skills?
Scott Morrison. I was not expecting him to be as proficient in the kitchen as he was. This is a man who made his own chapatis. He taught himself to cook just this year, so… I don’t know if that was in preparation for an appearance on the show.
Do you think doing the show was an attempt to soften his image?
He greeted me with flowers — this is a man who’s clearly on a charm offensive. He’s in a very interesting position because he spent some time as Immigration Minister making himself into a really unlikeable figure. I mean, that’s what he did. We talk about this in the show. He said it was deliberate, that he was making himself into an immoveable rock and broadcasting a message to people who were thinking about getting on boats and people smugglers that “I was not to be messed with” and “You will not come here!”
I think that his childhood acting experience — he was a child star — I’m probably overanalysing it, but see, he says, “That hard-man act was me in a character role.” Fine. But there are some real knock on effects from that. For instance, he has a domestic audience that now, to a large extent, believes it. And what he’s doing now is trying to soften that image. It’ll be fascinating to see how people respond to that.
His childhood’s really interesting for two reasons: One, it removed the capacity for him to be embarrassed by anything. He is virtually unembarrassable. And two, he learned how to act.
Why do you think it’s important that we see the real human side of these politicians?
No matter how big a bastard they are, they all have private lives and dramas and the dramas that they’ve had do, in my experience, really mould them not only as people but as decision-makers. And that’s good stuff to know about.
How do you decide on the desserts you bring to the pollies?
Well, with Scott Morrison, we did a sort of cheeky Middle Eastern take on a vacherin, which is like a pavlova.
My best mate from childhood Wendy Sharpe, she and I work on the recipes. She’s a genius inventor in the kitchen, so she’s been the recipe consultant for four series now. We look at where the person comes from, we look at their background, we looks at the region where they live.
The one that we laughed about most this series was Ricky Muir. We really wanted to bring him doughnuts, because, you know, he loves cars, fanging out, but we just couldn’t find a way to get a deep fat fryer transported to this log cabin with no power where we filmed.
You’re talking to someone who, for Pyne and Albanese, made ice-cream in a hotel room. I’m prepared to do tricky. But doughnuts in a log cabin in regional Victoria, I just could not do it. So in the end we made him a Ricky Road Cake. A cake with a rocky road topping. It was so cute, and we were giggling like idiots.
Who is on your wishlist to appear on Kitchen Cabinet?
There’s 30-something of them that that we’ve done now.
The beautiful thing about constantly having leadership spills is that there’s always a new crop of up-and-coming people to talk to. What I’m really looking forward to is shooting with some more women. We actually tried to speak with Marise Payne this series but she’s too busy, I assume saluting her new subordinates, and we just couldn’t find a time.
I’m really looking forward to that influx of women into the cabinet and into the outer ministry translating into really great guests for us. People like Marise Payne, Michaelia Cash, are going to be really great guests for us next time round.
I asked Boris Johnson to be on the show once, I really hope that comes up at some point. And I must have asked Julia Gillard so many times now if she would come on the show. And last time I asked, she had a book out, so I thought maybe she’d do it and it was still a no. So I said, “I’m going to stop asking now because it probably qualifies as stalking.” That’s a great missed opportunity, because I think she’d be really interesting.
What’s the last text message from a politician that you received?
[laughs] I had one from Scott Morrison saying, “I hope you’ve been kind to me.”
I sent Scott Morrison a picture of the front page of the newspaper, a report announcing Tina Arena is moving back to Australia [Morrison reveals himself in episode one to be a huge Tina Arena fan] and wrote, “I assume this is news of the week in your household?”
In the show we dug out a picture of Morrison in Year 6, and he’s the only kid in the whooooole class wearing a tie. Which I think tells you a little bit. Anyway, he says, “P.S. Had my 30-year high school reunion a week ago and bumped into quite a few people from that Year 6 photo. They will be watching too.”
And so will we! Kitchen Cabinet is on tonight on ABC1 at 8pm.