Who can ask a question on Q&A?

It’s the show that has people scratching their heads or shaking their fists well beyond its Monday-night time slot. Executive producer Peter McEvoy explains just how the team decides who gets in.

It’s an interesting question and one that provides a constant source of discussion for the commentators who rely on Q&A to generate the outrage for their columns.

Should a convicted criminal be allowed to question our politicians? Perhaps it depends on the crime.

Can shoplifters ask questions but not armed robbers? What about those convicted of drunk driving? Perhaps no questions if you served time but ok for a fine or suspended sentence? What about those found guilty where no conviction was recorded by the court? What about those convicted as juveniles?

What if someone went off the rails as a kid ended up a ward of the state and a victim of sexual abuse then fell into drug abuse and family violence and poverty. Like Duncan Storrar. Is Duncan allowed to ask a question?

What about those found guilty at first whose convictions were overturned and so found not guilty on appeal, like Senator Pauline Hanson? Or the sort of person who serves time for contempt of court, like Senator Derryn Hinch?

What about other past behaviour? What if the questioner got drunk and yelled abuse or threw a punch in a pub or at a party or the Walkley Awards for Journalism? What if they said something racist on the radio or made a joke of violence?

Public debate is not for the chosen few.

What if they’d written abuse on a blog or social media? Perhaps they wrote or shared racist abuse or religious abuse or homophobic abuse or misogyny on their Facebook page. Or maybe they just “liked” an abusive comment. Is that okay – if they just “liked” it but didn’t write the words themselves?

Or maybe they’ve complained about being abused and called a pig on the street and then we find they have abused other people in the same terms themselves. Do we cut them some slack if they’re victims as well as perpetrators, or does the hypocrisy just make it worse?

Q&A has at times attracted much attention and criticism over some of our questioners and even panellists. It seems the first reflex of those who disagree with what’s being said (including journalists who feign commitment to free speech) is to shut the offending speakers up and shut them out of the debate.

We listen to such criticisms carefully at Q&A and the ABC generally. We take them seriously, and when there are legitimate concerns we adapt our policies, practices and procedures to take them into account.

But the principle remains unchanged: Public debate is not for the chosen few.

All of the flawed characters I’ve described have the right to vote in our elections, to join political parties, to visit Parliament House, to lobby for their views and to be represented by their MPs.

Questioning our politicians is not a special privilege to be reserved only for the purest souls. When someone gets the chance to ask a question on Q&A it’s not a gold star for good character. It’s not a guarantee that they’re a saint. It’s not an endorsement of their opinion.

Each week we ensure a diverse mix of political views on the panel and in the audience. We deliberately bring together people with opposing views and try to provide a safe space for these opponents to have a civil disagreement.

Questioning our politicians is not a special privilege to be reserved only for the purest souls.

When we screen our audience and our questioners we’re not checking to make sure they’re nice people — we’re making sure we have the widest possible mix of views and that our audience will enter into the spirit of Q&A and treat each other with respect and civility during the program.

We cooperate closely with police forces and our own security to ensure that Q&A is a respectful debate – and that everyone can participate safely. We’re discussing the most controversial challenges facing our country and passions can get inflamed but each week we seem to manage pretty well to have ordinary Australians – the good, the bad and the rest – the opportunity to ask their questions.

It’s challenging for the politicians who have to face live scrutiny from real voters and answer off the cuff, and it seems to annoy some in the old-fashioned mainstream media who think asking questions and setting the agenda is a special privilege that only they should enjoy.

But it’s an opportunity that citizens appreciate and, in any democracy worth the name, it’s every citizen’s right.

Peter McEvoy is the executive producer of Q&A.

Members of the public can:

· Register to be part of the Q&A LIVE studio audience at: abc.net.au/qanda

· Submit questions for the panel, also at: abc.net.au/qanda

· Contribute to the discussion via Q&A’s Twitter highlights feed, using #qanda

· Submit live questions via Twitter using #qanda and @qanda