Sarah Ison and Politics Made Okay: The YouTube series finding the fun in Canberra

Headshot of Jay Hanna
Jay HannaThe West Australian
The West Australian journalist Sarah Ison at Parliament House in Canberra.
Camera IconThe West Australian journalist Sarah Ison at Parliament House in Canberra. Credit: Gary Ramage/Gary Ramage

Did you hear the one about the Australian politician who, while voicing his views about the same-sex marriage plebiscite, suddenly segued into a rant about crocodile attacks? Or when Barnaby Joyce was declared leader of the Nationals following a leadership spill but lamented the timing because he’d left his beloved akubra at home that day.

These anecdotes involving two of Canberra’s most colourful characters — Bob Katter and our Deputy Prime Minister — are the kinds of stories screenwriters and comedians adore. Either true-life tale would make perfect fodder for a political satire in the vein of Veep or In The Thick of It.

For The West Australian federal political reporter Sarah Ison, these sorts of stories are rolled gold for her side hustle as a stand-up comedian and ideal fodder for her YouTube series Politics Made Okay.

“There are so many characters in Canberra,” Ison says. “I can’t stop watching Bob Katter. I hear him talking about crocs and I just think, where is your mind going?

“And Barnaby Joyce is another character. He is a real cowboy, no pun intended. When he won the leadership spill against Michael McCormack, I asked him how long he had been planning it and his honest to god, very serious, no smile on his face response was, ‘if I was planning this, I would have brought my hat’.”

We need to hold politicians to account and the only we can do that is to engage with what is happening

Sarah Ison

Ison is extremely passionate about what she does for a living but she admits that before she was deployed to the nation’s capital from her home in Perth, her interest in politics was minimal to say the least.

“My family didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about politics and my friends weren’t really into politics either,” the 26-year-old says.

“It was really not until I came across to the federal press gallery that I got interested and, it’s my life now. I’ve gone from never talking about it to talking about it at every single dinner I’m at. I literally live and breathe it.”

Arriving in Canberra and having to navigate her way around Parliament House, all while trying to get her head around what her role entailed, was an experience she won’t forget.

“Initially, I found the whole building very intimidating,” she says. “It was a bit frightening, at least for the first few weeks but the other thing that hit me was how exhilarating it was — it’s such a melting pot of people and ideas and events and stuff happening right here.”

Having had a political awakening of her own, Ison was keen to try and engage others who had little interest or knowledge in politics. She knew she had to think outside the box in order to try and capture their attention.

“That’s when the opportunity of doing a YouTube series for The West Australian came up,” she says.

Ison’s upbeat delivery and ability to simplify and explain complicated issues makes Politics Made Okay (a play on the acronym for the Prime Minister’s office) a funny, engaging and informative series.

“I go through what’s what, who’s who and why any of it matters and have a bit of a chuckle about just how ridiculous some of it is,” Ison explains in the first video in the series.

Already an experienced podcaster — she co-hosts Bubble Pop with fellow political journalist Amanda Copp — Ison says she’s been able to leverage her own initial lack of experience to reach those who are often forgotten in mainstream political commentary — namely those who lack basic understanding on the subject.

“Before coming to Canberra, I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge of federal politics,” she says.

At times, I have seen that as a real weakness and a real disadvantage but in fact what I’ve realised is that I am closer to people who don’t know much about politics because I was one of them a few years ago.

“I understand that sometimes we are dealing with huge amounts of information and it can be overwhelming, so people are switching off and disengaging. That’s sad and disappointing and it’s also dangerous. People need to know what is going on so they can vote in a way that is informed.”

Ison says she would love more young voters, in particular, to really start paying attention and understanding that politics underpins almost every facet of our lives.

“A lot of people think politics is just politics but it is everything,” she says.

“It’s what your education is going to be like, what your healthcare system is like, how we treat the environment. It’s even things like investing in new tech and gaming. So whatever you are interested in or whatever you care about, it is and will be affected by this abstract thing that you’d rather not think about.”

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 10 2021: 
West Australian journalist Sarah Ison at Parliament House in Canberra.
Picture: Gary Ramage
Camera IconWest Australian journalist Sarah Ison at Parliament House in Canberra. Gary Ramage Credit: Gary Ramage/Gary Ramage

Ison has discovered her podcast and the YouTube series have become popular with people who have moved to Australia from overseas. People who want to engage and understand what is happening but have struggled to follow mainstream reporting that tends to assume a basic level of understanding about how Australian politics operates.

“My mum is one of those people,” Ison says. “She moved to Australia from Switzerland in her 30s and while she is fluent in English, she’s just never really understood the Australian political system. So she isn’t just listening because she’s a chuffed mum, she’s also said, ‘I am starting to understand things I could never wrap my head around in two decades of living here’.”

Ison loves to think she is helping people make more informed voting choices because she believes it works to the advantage of those in power if the general populace is disengaged.

“I feel like there’s actually a bit of a concerted effort from politicians to make out that politics is a bit boring because if people are bored, they don’t engage and if they don’t engage, they don’t look at what you are doing too closely and you can get away with more,” she says.

“We need to hold politicians to account and the only we can do that is to engage with what is happening.”

While Canberra has a reputation for being cutthroat, Ison says she’s been pleasantly surprised by her experiences and the friendships she’s made during her two years there.

“I was told to watch out before I came here and that it can be very competitive but I’ve also found the people can be really nice,” she says.

“When I first started, it was a very steep learning curve and I would walk into all these different bureaus in the press gallery and say, ‘hey, I don’t get this?’. And you’d have people who are meant to be my competitors saying, “OK, sit down, let’s chat’. That’s not what I expected. These are people who have been doing this for decades and they’ve been willing to give their time and expertise to help me out.”

She’s even had her media colleagues and Parliament House staff turn up to support her at her stand-up shows.

“I’ve had people from the Prime Minister’s office come, which was a bit nerve-racking,” she says. “I do try to keep my stand-up material quite partisan — I don’t rag on one party all the time, just in case.”

But then, some people are just easy targets — looking at you, Bob and Barnaby.

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