Reflections on a Queensland “miracle”

When was the last time you could genuinely say that you observed a “miracle”?

The word describes an event that has been touched by some form of magic, religious or otherwise. It perfectly describes a situation where something irrationally positive occurs, something that cannot be logically processed or that seemingly transcends logic and the rules of natural law. When Josh Frydenberg revealed that his Prime Minister was praying for a miracle on election eve, and Scott Morrison evoked the same word in claiming victory in the Wentworth Hotel’s headlights the following night, it betrayed the truth: this was not an outcome that the Coalition was expecting. Time to slap that Jesus fish on the back window of the Prime Ministerial comcar, if it wasn’t there already. Sometimes, magic does happen.

A miraculous victory for one party in a contest implies a freakish or unnatural defeat for the rest. Such a defeat is difficult to process, and it is tempting to reach for those retrospectively obvious conclusions that were so obvious that they went completely undetected prior to the election. Quite literally years worth of polling suggested a Labor victory on Saturday evening. The betting markets suggested a crushing Labor victory on Saturday evening. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, was widely judged to have been the winner, or at least to have held his own, in the campaign’s three televised election debates. For crying out loud, a much-respected and widely-loved (exceedingly rare qualities for a former Australian politician) party legend passed away in the last days of the election campaign, appealing to the sentimentality of voters. The scene was set perfectly for a passing of the baton that had been anticipated by the political class and the media for what seems like an age.

Even with the fairy dust still fluttering from the rafters and settling on the floor of the Wentworth Hotel’s ballroom, there is a natural urge – a need – to rationalise what happened and to try to explain who dropped that baton and how it was dropped. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law spoke of technology, but it applies equally to the “miracle” we have just witnessed: any sufficiently complex event is indistinguishable from magic. A federal election with 16.4 million enrolled voters at different stages of their lives, with different political beliefs, and different interpretations of the individual policies put forward by Labor, is a fucking complex event. The media and commentariat do their darnedest to give us all answers, but they do not have the answers. The data is not there, nobody has that data and it is unlikely that anybody ever will. All the media have to guide us are their opinions, anecdotes, simplifications, internal party leaks often with their own agendas, and strict time and/or word limits in getting their work published.

If the exact reasons for the election result will perhaps remain unknowable, there are still some fundamentals to be aired. Let the therapy begin.

Labor was very unsuccessful in convincing non-Labor voters in Queensland and Tasmania and fairly unsuccessful in convincing non-Labor voters in New South Wales about its policy program

Non-Labor voters in Queensland roundly rejected the proposition of a Shorten Labor Government; the only seats in that state set to change hands at the election are likely to be a couple of Labor seats lost to the Liberal National Party (Herbert and Longman). One Nation and Clive Palmer’s megabucks played a role, but should not be wielded as an excuse. If Labor was so reliant on making gains in Queensland, what was the compelling vision that Labor was offering ordinary Queenslanders in this campaign? Or expanding the point, ordinary outer-suburban voters? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. If I tried, I would be describing a grab-bag of things that don’t necessarily add up to a convincing whole, especially when hedged in voter’s minds against the so-called ‘retiree tax’ and ‘inheritance tax’ phantoms evoked by the Coalition.

The paltry gain of Gilmore in New South Wales was cancelled out by the predictable loss of Lindsay following the mishandling of the Emma Husar saga. Tasmania looks set to contribute two crucial seats to the Coalition’s tally in the House of Representatives, making Scott Morrison’s historic decision to fly there on election day look inspired. In these three states, in particular, the results indicate a complete absence of a clamouring for change by non-Labor voters.

Bill Shorten had a go and he had to go

The broad consensus was that Bill Shorten personally grew into the role he sought during the campaign, despite fundamentally lacking popularity with much of the electorate. He won or at least drew even with the Prime Minister in the three election debates, and as the figurehead of an ambitious, controversial policy program, he did a fairly credible job of rebutting criticism. Shorten’s performance was reminiscent of Kim Beazley’s performance in 1999 and Ed Miliband in the UK in 2015. For Labor or Labour supporters, there is a clear sense of the alternate timeline governments that might have been.

With this result, however, it is also fair to say that Bill Shorten has exhausted his potential as leader. Two bites at the cherry should have been enough; he made an essential choice in stepping down from the leadership on Saturday night.

Current polling methods and (as a result) betting markets are bunkum

It should not be possible, all things being equal, for an Opposition which has won effectively every poll for years – including exit polls and several not too long ago by a landslide margin – to lose the one poll that matters. The current machinery of polling, brutally aggregating across geographies, has generated a margin of error that far exceeds the true split between the parties, rendering completely misleading numbers. We live today in a largely landline-free world where for many, the default cadence is to hang up on cold calls or to not necessarily answer the phone at all. Changes are needed.

A special mention goes to Sportsbet, who paid out $1.3 million dollars on a Labor victory days before the election, in addition to the millions of dollars it likely paid out on the Coalition winning.

In fairness, it is unreasonable to expect betting operators or gamblers to anticipate Scott Morrison’s Queensland ‘miracle’, when quite literally nobody else seriously did. If there is any consolation here at all for Labor, it is that ‘magic’ can indeed be summoned from polling dust; miracles can happen, but only if the party successfully appeals to enough of the right people in the right electorates. It is that simple, and that complicated.

Ricky Muir: lotto winner, anti-politician, forlorn hope

In Philip K. Dick’s sixty-year-old first novel Solar Lottery, a computerised lotto system is used to randomly fill employment positions worldwide, including that of “the Quizmaster”, the head of world government.


Besides being a silly idea, this is also a ruthlessly democratic, egalitarian idea: the prospect of a world where anyone, anywhere regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation or any other form of categorisation you can think of is equally eligible to serve is a seductive one, particularly if you lean left. “Election by lot” may seem a bit of a “sci-fi” thought-bubble to the uninitiated, but it is far from a futuristic concept: for a time in ancient Athens over 2000 years ago, boule council members were elected by lot, with the aim of ensuring that not only the most rich, powerful and well-connected citizens were given the opportunity to participate in the business of government.

You don’t really have to think too hard to realise that this ancient idea has a peculiar sort of relevance for modern day politics in Australia. At the 2013 election, Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party managed to reel in 4.91% of the first preference vote in the Senate, and with it, three Senators. Since then, it has been revealed that the only tangible things binding the members of this so-called party together may have been personal ambition and a recognition that using Palmer’s prestige and wealth as a platform for a few years of work in Canberra wasn’t a bad idea. Old mate Clive himself would most likely not have been given a guernsey in ancient Athens, unless of course he “got lucky”.

Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (who?), on the other hand, did actually manage to “get lucky”. At the 2013 election, Muir’s party secured itself a Senate seat representing Victoria with a record low 17,122 votes, just 0.51% of all first preference votes in that state. It is a great irony that the really quite undemocratic vagaries of Senate preference flows in Victoria have resulted in an outcome that is about as virtuously random as any outcome that you could hope for in our political system. Even more ironically, Ricky Muir has turned out to be the apocryphal Athenian Homer Simpson that election by lot was always supposed to deliver: a really quite ordinary guy of the type not well represented by our current crop of predominantly yuppie parliamentarians, thrust into a position of considerable power within our political system. He has the air of the incredulous lottery winner from Struggle Street often featured on commercial news network bulletins; yes, he might buy his Mum a new house. Yes, he will still troop into work the next day.

Needless to say, in our modern political culture of highly scripted exchanges, spin and sound-bites, it has been far from smooth sailing for “our hero”. In June 2014, Muir gave an exclusive and excruciating interview to Seven’s Sunday Night program in which he laboured to explain his purpose for being in parliament and the meaning of basic concepts such as the “balance of power” in the Senate.

Conditioned as we are to watching snake oil salesmen run the country, it is hard not to watch the interview without forming the opinion that this is a man far from his element who has no place being within cooee of the levers of power. His six month dalliance in a voting bloc with the Palmer United Party was also ill-advised and served to only temporarily increase Clive Palmer’s personal influence over the affairs of the country.

And yet, and yet. Senator Muir has stood firm in his support for a Renewable Energy Target (RET). He has opposed the Abbott Government’s radical plan to deregulate universities and hike student fees. He wisely decided to renege on a previous agreement forged by the PUP voting bloc with the Coalition to vote against the government’s Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulatory changes. A few weeks back he finally delivered his maiden speech in the Senate.


The video of the speech is worth watching, and provides an interesting contrast with the slick, smarmy eyeballs to camera performance art that we come to expect from the likes of Malcolm Turnbull and similarly moulded products of the professional political machinery of this country. There is something refreshing about seeing a humble, ordinary guy nervously reading a really rather good speech, his suit slightly ill-fitting, his eyes only occasionally daring to look up from his script to scan the chamber. Sometime a rare, unexpected workmanlike performance can mean more than yet another star turn.

These passages and how little we have heard such sentiments in public life speak to how far our parliaments have moved from being truly representative of the Australian people:

I have a long history of living at the receiving end of legislative changes, of feeling the squeeze of new or higher taxes, feeling the pressure and even losing sleep when you realise that the general cost of living just went up a tiny $20. To everyone sitting in this chamber, if you think $20 a week is nothing, or just a pack of cigarettes or a few beers, you have never lived in the real world.

I can tell you, as somebody who was not born into wealth, who has had to work my way up with absolute honesty, that working-class Australia is absolutely sick to death of working our lives away just to pay the bills and having to struggle to spend the very money we work hard to earn on actually enjoying our existence rather than feeling like a slave to the dollar.

It is possible to simultaneously believe that Ricky Muir does not deserve to be taking a place in the Senate and that it is marvellous that he has somehow found himself there. Democracy and anti-democracy have collided and the result looks set to be an interesting watch for the duration of Senator Muir’s six-year term of office in the Senate. One of the biggest crises facing modern Australian democracy is that ordinary, battling people don’t see anyone who can really relate to their everyday concerns in our nation’s parliaments. This lack of “relatability” translates to a lack of faith in parliamentary democracy as we know it now for a lot of Australians, and before long solidifies in the form of contempt or in many cases sheer hate for politicians of all persuasions.

Sadly, we will have to rely on dodgy Senate preference flow deals for our “Quizmasters”; election by lot is not coming to a parliament near you anytime soon. It is a bitter irony of the so-called information age that we have the capacity to ignore the elegant hints to the solutions to our problems that were laid out for us over two-thousand years ago.

Jacqui Lambie: when the ordinary is extraordinary

Since her election as a Federal PUP Senator for Tasmania last September, Jacqui Lambie has not so much polarised opinion as hit it with a hammer, pumped it full of lead, trussed it up in a sack and hoicked it unceremoniously into the Derwent.


Lambie’s interactions with the media have been uncensored, unscripted, and unapologetic. There have been car crash interviews, such as this one with Sarah Ferguson on the 7:30 Report, in which she floats a thought bubble banking tax idea and defends her description of the Abbott Government as “uncaring psychopaths”. There have been quotes that might compel your average cleanskin political staffer to self-harm, such as her colourful comments on radio about her preference for men with a “good package between their legs”, and her tin-foil hat warnings of a future Chinese invasion. The latter intervention prompted the Courier Mail to christen the Senator “Lambo”, and based on her trail of destruction through the Australian political landscape in just 12 months, momentum may soon gather for her to win a red-blooded cameo role in The Expendables IV.

Lambie, the Deputy Leader of the Palmer United Party in the Senate, gave her maiden parliamentary speech in the Senate a fortnight ago. God, she contends, performed a miracle to somehow put her in this place. Her heartfelt feelings about the systemic disadvantage suffered by Tasmanians were plain for all to see:

Every Tasmanian senator clearly understands the unbearable level of social and economic misery that the extra cost of shipping goods, vehicles, machinery, food, fuel and people 420 kilometres over the ocean has caused Tasmanians—rather than driving 420 kilometres on a national highway. But what I cannot understand is why every Tasmanian senator, especially those who have been in power or are in power now, has chosen to do nothing. In fact, even worse than doing nothing, every Tasmanian senator has turned a blind eye to this outrageous, stinking, filthy injustice.

The solution is clear: if the powers that control the treasury bench do not want an army of Jacqui Lambies in this place, speaking uncomfortable truths and challenging them in the future—then fix the Bass Strait Transport cost crisis.

As we all know, there is little chance that “an army” of Jacqui Lambies will be elected to Australia’s Parliament. The brutal truth of it is that despite the media sneers, the cringing, and yes, the occasional stupidity Lambie has brought to the table since her election, she is one of the most ordinary Australians currently holding elected public office in the nation’s capital. She is a real person: an actual, bonafide everyday Aussie, representing the likely hundreds of thousands or millions of men and women that share some or much of her world-view. The shock to the system that we all get when we see the Senator speaking colloquially on television, making it up as bit as she goes along, or dropping an embarrassing clanger is actually the shock of seeing an average Australian with average communication skills democratically represent us. This is where we are in Australia in 2014: looking down our noses, tut-tutting with contempt when our electoral system has the temerity to deliver us a member of parliament who is actually representative of Australian society at large rather than of quasi-democratic managerialville.

It is hard to reflect about the Jacqui Lambie phenomenon so far – if we can call it that – without reflecting on the experience of another remarkably ordinary Australian parliamentarian, a certain fish and chip shop owner from Ipswich in Queensland. History is recorded by the victors in the manner they choose, and the simplistic version of the Pauline Hanson fable is that a nasty, stupid, racist woman from Queensland was put back in her box where she belonged by a coalition of the broader Australian community and by voters. Racism was rejected. One Nation was defeated. The chattering media and political classes cheered as one.

Hanson’s racism may have fostered the most public enmity, but in reality, of course, it was never just about the racism – here was another instance where fairly well-off, fairly well-educated people living in metropolitan areas caught a glimpse of an average woman representing thousands of fairly average Australians in Canberra and didn’t like what they saw. The cultural cringe kicked in, big time. Good sense may have triumphed when Pauline Hanson lost her seat, but scant attention was paid to what else was crushed in that process: racism in Australia didn’t just disappear when Australian voters “shot” the messenger. The legitimate economic concerns and fears of people living in the outer suburbs of our cities and regional areas didn’t just disappear in a puff of righteous smoke. What did disappear was a little bit more of the dwindling faith that many Australians have in our political process and the genuineness of the people who represent them in our nation’s parliaments. These outsiders see a lot of people with crisp suits and good haircuts who can rattle on pretty well, but they don’t see many of their own in Canberra.

Will the Jacqui Lambie story borrow chapters from Pauline Hanson and Julia Gillard’s stories, as another controversial woman in public life chewed up and spat out somewhat misogynistically by our political system? We will have to wait and see, but there may yet be a few twists in the tale: in the last couple of days, the Senator has publicly backed a rough diamond of an idea: the introduction of some dedicated Indigenous seats in Parliament. If there is anything that our struggling First Australians need, it is some gaming of our electoral system to help ensure that their voices can be heard in the nation’s capital, across the nation’s airwaves and in all our lounge rooms. Lambie’s authenticity could win support for such decent, left-field ideas from people who wouldn’t give it a second’s serious consideration if it spilled from the mouth of someone sitting on the Government or Opposition front benches.

We don’t all have to agree with her, we don’t all have to like her, and we certainly shouldn’t trust anybody politically wedded to Clive Palmer, as she is. But perhaps we should all “check our privilege” and reflect just a wee bit on the disenfranchised Australians Jacqui Lambie speaks on behalf of more truly than most other parliamentarians, before we trip over each other’s feet rushing to condemn her.