I’m usually suspicious of the claims by journalists and pundits that politicians avoid every question thrown to them. Undeniably naïve, I know, but I hold this optimistic view that perhaps, if questioned hard enough, politicians will reveal their innermost political attitudes.
My approach radically changed when I engaged in my first political interview with Kerri-Anne Jones, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Student journalists in Australia rarely get opportunities to interview US government officials, and are more rarely invited to them. I accepted the request without hesitation.
I met her in the US Studies Centre on a Thursday. She was at lunch, so I waited in the lobby until she arrived. She was heralded by a procession of men and women in suits, speaking chirpily. They called me up to a room in the top level, where I was introduced to the relevant figures, shook hands, and sat down next to Ben Cubby from The Sydney Morning Herald, in front of the Assistant Secretary, a lovely but evidently powerful woman. We were surrounded by around six of her staff members, who had to be present during the interview.
Ben began the interview, but when it came to my turn, I froze inside and nervously asked if I could record the interview. See, I’m not very good at taking notes. She acquiesced, suspiciously – not for the sake of any sinister motivation, but more questioning my credentials.
I asked her about the Keystone Pipeline in the United States, a major project with significant potential environmental implications. Her answer was unsatisfying. My other questions, on issues such as the US-Australian defense treaty that put limitations on academic research that were deemed ‘security issues,’ Australian coal exports, and patenting laws, were amateurish but legitimate. However, she ignored each by claiming, respectively, a lack of knowledge on the issue, a breach of sovereignty, and irrelevancy to her portfolio. Irrelevancy was accused often.
I gained two insights from this exchange. As an official with a portfolio, she was able to claim questions were outside of her portfolio. Even the issue of coal, which was an environmental issue, she claimed was a trade issue. She had no say on US trade policy, and therefore could not answer questions related to trade, even when her portfolio – oceans, science, the environment – were inextricably linked with the issues.
She could also switch ‘personalities’. On the Keystone Pipeline, she was at once a member of the Obama Administration, congratulating and celebrating his Inauguration and State of the Union speeches, announcing him to be a warrior of the environment. But she was also a state official, and when questioned about Obama’s actual record on the environment, could avoid the question once more, claiming she could not speak on her own behalf but only on her technical findings. She was, you see, in the middle of her investigation – she was objective, and could not comment on what is really happening with the Keystone Pipeline. It would not be fair to. Allegedly.
When we finished the interview, she thanked Ben and me for the interview, and we thanked her back. She parted with an observation, though: my questions were not relevant enough to her portfolio. In retrospect, perhaps – but for journalists, it is infinitely frustrating that trained officials can endlessly ignore questions by removing themselves as individuals in a dialogue, and instead presenting themselves as spokespeople for impersonal political machines.
Throughout the interview, she hinted she knew more than she could say, and this filter confirmed the overwhelming consensus in the media: the silence of political figures robs us of an insight into the actual machinations of domestic and international politics.