Emma Alberici questions Finance Minister Mathias Cormann on Lateline.
Emma Alberici questions Finance Minister Mathias Cormann on Lateline.

Story behind devastating question

WHEN Finance Minister Mathias Cormann made an appearance on ABC's Lateline program in August, neither he or Australia were prepared for host Emma Alberici's powerful first question.

"A friend of my daughter's, a 15-year-old boy, came out as gay last week to his parents and was kicked out of home," she told him.

"Whilst you and your colleagues are bickering in your party room, aren't you concerned about the message you send to young vulnerable gay and lesbian Australians that they won't deserve the same treatment as other Australians?"

Senator Cormann had arrived at the studio with well-rehearsed answers on the Liberal Party's proposed same-sex marriage postal plebiscite. But he didn't expect this question.

In a withering two sentences, Alberici, 47, humanised the issue and cut to the very heart of its importance - she presented the undeniable anguish that surrounded it.

But before the interview took place, Alberici hadn't planned on opening with the question.

"I had spent the weekend with my kids and my older daughter had mentioned this and all of us as a family had discussed it and thought just how tragic that was," she told news.com.au. "And we know people who know the boy. And I just reflected on it as I was going into the studio. Actually, I hadn't intended on that being the first question. But I was reflecting on it for a long time. And I slept uneasily thinking about this young boy. He went to live with his sister, he was lucky to have that option."

In her six years hosting the long-running late-night current affairs show, Alberici has become a master at grilling politicians with a steady ease. And after hearing the story of her daughter's friend, the host - who resides in Sydney's beachside suburb of Coogee with her three kids, all under the age of 13 - said she felt the debate was "tearing families apart".

"It's a bit beyond the pale. It's not a matter of voting on whether we should have a Medicare levy. This is a little more personal and affecting people. And I just genuinely - because I'm permanently curious - wanted to know what the minister responsible for this process ... whether he had also reflected on how this might be affecting young gay and lesbian Australians.

 

" ... The fact young people are going through this torment out there and taking the bold step of coming out to their family during a time when the population at large is deciding whether those relationships are worthy of the same status as a heterosexual relationship ... I just thought was a bit unfortunate. I just wondered whether the minister had thought about the impact that might be having on young people."

The question was met with both applause and criticism. And that criticism continued throughout the two-month marriage equality campaign. After responding to an article written by Sky News' Caroline Marcus on Twitter, Alberici was labelled a "bully". Tony Abbott jumped on board.

All of a sudden, to Alberici's surprise, she was "pegged as some kind of raving Yes voter" by some. But all she did, she explained, was ask questions.

" ... I never really expressed a solid view (on same-sex marriage)," she said. "I did put out a tweet (where) I genuinely wanted to know what the arguments were on the No side so I could decide who and how I would interview someone on the Yes side. Because I wanted to be able to put the point of view of the No side to the Yes side.

"I wanted to understand the No side better. Also, because I am Catholic and my children go to Catholic schools and I have many friends who are Catholic priests - and they were all in favour and voting Yes including Frank Brennan, who I call a friend. So I found it difficult to understand why certain people in the community appropriated God. 'Well God's mine I'm going to say what God thinks.'"

She added: "And so putting that tweet out saying, 'Give me your arguments, I'm keen to know' ... suddenly (that) pegged me as some raving Yes voter."

"Why was it so controversial that I wanted to know what the No arguments were? (Arguments) That weren't just about the fact you thought gay sex was a bit 'icky'? I'm just someone who's permanently curious."

‘It’s the right decision’ ... Alberici on the end of Lateline’s 28 year run.
‘It’s the right decision’ ... Alberici on the end of Lateline’s 28 year run.

Six years of interviewing politicians and dealing with pesky social media trolls means Alberici isn't easily flustered. Moving to the UK with three kids under the age of four as the Europe Correspondent for the ABC in 2008 was more stressful than anything thrown her way in the studio, she said.

After 28 years, Lateline will air its final program in a few weeks. Alberici - who joined the program as host in 2012 - is the show's longest running presenter after Kerry O'Brien and Tony Jones.

"I was surprised when I was asked to do it ... I'd never done politics before," she said, noting her business and finance background.

She's a voracious consumer of news. Her days begin at 5am with a morning run - a new habit she started this year - before she switches on the morning radio shows, reads the papers and flicks through Twitter and websites. After carting the three kids off to school, she's on the phone for a production meeting at 9.30am before heading into the studio. Her days end around 10.30pm after the show wraps, and she flicks through the headlines until midnight.

Alberici said changing viewer habits mean ABC's move to end Lateline is the right decision - and her new role as chief economics correspondent at the broadcaster will allow her to work across multiple platforms.

"It's sad. It's the end of 28 years. It's significant. And I feel enormously proud and of all who've worked on it. We've had some extraordinary talent in front of the camera and behind the camera," she said, naming director Rob Dormer and floor manager Mick Walter.

The final broadcast of the program will bring back all former hosts including O'Brien, Jones and Maxine McKew.

Lateline airs weeknights on ABC from 10.30pm



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