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Lisa Markwell: If 'MasterChef' is on, who gives a fig for politics?

The show that can bring a country to a standstill

I like MasterChef as much as the next person. Well, perhaps a little bit more. Last year I, ahem, applied to be on the cookery competition TV show. The fact that I'm writing for this newspaper and not behind the stove at a bijou little eatery on the coast is enough to confirm that I was turned down. But I'm not bitter.

In fact, I've been glued to this week's celebrity spin-off, despite the fact that the contestants are not terribly famous, and that they appear to know nothing about food. When a veteran of Brookside correctly identifies one of the ingredients of an omelette as "egg" it's hard to maintain the will to live, never mind watch. More than four million of us tuned in to Thursday's opening episode, no doubt all screaming "Not burnt at all, you fool"! at the screen when former Dragon's Den judge Richard Farleigh wondered about his tempura, "I'm not sure how burnt people like them".

But our enthusiasm for their culinary fumblings is a mere snack, an amuse-bouche, compared with the full six-course-tasting-menu levels of adoration for MasterChef in Australia. Tonight, its amateur version reaches its climax with a fiercely fought cook-off between Adam Liaw and Callum Hann. Why should we care, apart from wondering whether, since we have Australian chef and worrywart John Torode, we're allowed to export Antony Worrall Thompson to them. It's also of concern if the finalists' signature dish is scallops with pea puree, as it is here. Surely there can't be enough bivalves left in the world ....

No, we care because the Australian government has moved a televised leaders' debate by an hour to avoid clashing with the MC finale. (It now clashes with Aussie Strictly, but who cares about that?) Yes, you read that correctly: a reality show about cooking is deemed more important than the real business of politics.

The general election in Australia takes place on 21 August; last week, Google reported that MasterChef was the subject of twice as many online searches as the political battle for dominance between the incumbent Julia Gillard and challenger Tony Abbott.

Apparently Gillard said she understood the MasterChef fans' dilemma. "I can understand the fascination with cooking and eating," she said. "I know many Australians will watch that show, but I think Australians will still pay some regard to the debate and to the election campaign and what's said in it."

Of course, what she should have said was ,"Politics doesn't get tougher than this!!!", and insisted on the pots and pans being put on hold for a day, but then who wants to be the politician who misreads the public mood?

The opportunity, surely, is for Julia and Tony to connect with the voters and popularise their policies by appearing as celebrity judges for the final on Sunday, and skipping the debate altogether. This could herald a new dawn in popular politics. (Vince Cable could follow their lead and finally get his Strictly moment.) Or perhaps they could invite the winner to cook a celebratory meal for whomever polls the most votes. Mind you, they might want to avoid the dish concocted by previous contestant Chris – beeramisu, a lager-y take on the classic Italian dish. Even from the nation that gave us Foster's, that's a culinary coalition too far.