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.

solar-lottery-cover

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.

Ricky

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.

Westminster dispelled: President Kevin Rudd?

The tenor of the mainstream media’s election banter has changed dramatically since Julia Gillard was evicted from Yarralumla by her colleagues close to a fortnight ago. Kevin Rudd has returned to lead Labor armed not with a fistful of changes in party policy, but simply with a different image, and the easy confidence that comes from knowing that a significant number of people out there in suburbia australianus still fancy him as a leader. He knows this not just because he (ahem) rates himself or that the pollsters tell him so , but because of his assiduous use of social media and his typically amicable interactions with ordinary Australians across the country. We know this because if the polls (and particularly the inimitable Poll Bludger) are to be believed, Labor is now looking seriously competitive with the Coalition for the first time in 3 years. What seemed to be inevitable – Tony Abbott moving into The Lodge in September – no longer feels inevitable.

Little wonder then that the so-called Cabinet-elect is becoming a little restive; Malcolm Turnbull used a remarkable proportion of his Sir John Monash Oration at the Jewish Museum last week to have a dig at the leadership style of Labor’s revived Prime Minister:

I observed the Rudd government from close range, but from the outside, but there are important lessons in political leadership to be drawn from it. There is no doubt that concentrating too much authority in the Prime Minister and his office, the micro-management of policy from that office clearly resulted both in ill-considered decisions (NBN, pink batts, school halls) and inexplicable delays.

Turnbull goes on to argue that Rudd’s controlling nature and the inexperience of his front bench team will compel him to run a presidential campaign, and if elected, a somewhat dysfunctional presidential-style government, just as he did before the knives of his colleagues came out for him in 2010. By way of contrast, he harks back to the Howard years as a golden age of “traditional cabinet government”, during which the Prime Minister consulted generously with colleagues, and allowed ministers to get on with their portfolios with a measure of independence, free of prime ministerial diktats. It is this sort of “traditional cabinet government” that Turnbull argues Tony Abbott and his team will deliver if he leads the Coalition to victory in September.

I don’t take issue with the Member for Wentworth’s assertion that “traditional cabinet government” is in Australia’s interests; I might even be prepared to wave through the notion that the Howard Government – at least during the zenith of its effectiveness – operated as much or more in the spirit of this style of governance than the Rudd or Gillard Governments have managed since 2007. On the other hand surely only the most one-eyed 2UE listener would contend that the Coalition’s performance in Opposition under Tony Abbott suggests they are on track to restore the “noble glories” of Westminster decision-making to Canberra. The Opposition Leader’s relentless negativity has dominated his tenure as the nation’s alternative Prime Minister, and what little in the way of coherent policy the Coalition has communicated so far this year has been funneled through him. He has, thus far, astonishingly refused to debate Kevin Rudd, even though the Prime Minister has allowed him the luxury of choosing the debate topic.

Normally, an Opposition Leader would jump at the chance to get him or herself on the same platform as the Prime Minister in a direct personal confrontation; normally the more bites an Opposition Leader gets at the cherry, the better. Not for Tony. Abbott has not run and is not running a presidential campaign – he is running an anti-presidential campaign, shouting the loudest sound bites, tearing at Julia Gillard (at times without a shred of civility) and appealing to the lowest common denominator, whilst carefully avoiding any substantive confrontations that might expose him to undue risk. Which now, evidently, includes any event that puts he and Rudd in the same room before the dreaded Worm and the nation’s television viewing hordes. Clearly, he fears that in the eyes of the voting public, he might not be able to help coming off second-best to the Sunrise kid. This is a game of chicken he doesn’t want any part of.

There is another more significant systemic problem with Turnbull’s pitch for “traditional cabinet government”. Recent events have given further credence to what most of us accepted sometime back – in the eyes of the public, Australia’s system is essentially a presidential one tarted up in Westminster system silk. A significant slice of voters who were not planning to vote for Gillard Labor are apparently prepared to vote for Rudd Labor. These folks haven’t changed their mind because of anything substantive Rudd has offered in a policy sense, and they certainly don’t prefer Rudd’s proposed ministerial team. In short, they prefer Rudd as a person, as a leader; as president. Pollsters are fond of telling us it is the two-party preferred numbers that matter on polling day. They are right, as a matter of fact, but when pure personality has the power to toggle the two-party preferred numbers by somewhere in the vicinity of of 10% (larger than the margin of most recent elections), the question of what really is the most decisive factor on polling day becomes a lot muddier.

So sorry, Malcolm. The sorts of voters that the Coalition needs to convince in September could hardly care less about the Westminster tradition and the seductively archaic charms of “traditional cabinet government”. If the Coalition are indeed to win, they now need to sell Tony Abbott as a convincing president. If they fail to do this, they risk losing what seemed very recently to be an unlosable election.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Whither dignity in an age of political hate

It has been a torrid couple of weeks: for Julia Gillard, for the honour of representative democracy and for all of us who kidded ourselves into believing that misogyny wasn’t rife in Australia. It goes without saying that a male Prime Minister would never have received the treatment that Gillard has endured in the last couple of weeks. The meat-headed mate-o-plex that dominates the Australian suburbs and the media establishment does not piss on its own, and when primary school-level intelligence meets visceral hatred, the results are guaranteed only to disgust.

How did we get to this place, where we have so much hate for the people we collectively chose to represent us in the nation’s parliament? I am not Howard Sattler; indeed I would prefer Julia Gillard to lead the country more than any politician from any other political party. But then, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t see the flipside: during the long Howard years it was hard to couch my dislike for John Howard or even more shallowly – his wife – in purely intellectual terms. We are talking about something more than pure politics or policy here. We are talking about hate, across a broad gradient of increasingly inappropriate shades, from braindead chit-chat about “rangas” to a high profile radio announcer asking the Prime Minister if her long-term partner is gay. If there ever was a modicum of dignity associated with representing your local community in Canberra, it feels a lot to me like it has been bar stooled, tabloid headlined, vox-popped and tweeted into extinction.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Helen Mirren star in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The central conceit of the play is the magisterial ordinariness, almost, of The Queen, in her relationships with various British Prime Ministers over the last sixty years. The Prime Ministers are depicted as troubled souls; figures of jest for our amusement. Mirren plays the role of amateur psychiatrist with aplomb, and the audience is made to feel as though they can relate more to their monarch than the people actually chosen for high office to whom she offers potted advice and polite conversation. The dignity of the role of the Queen is clearly sacrosanct; beyond question. What dignity each Prime Minister enjoys as they appear on stage is swiftly destroyed as we delight in their foibles, chuckling at the general patheticness of these neurotic (mostly) men in suits passing briefly through the revolving door of government.

For a republican, the contrast between how people still view the ancestors of jumped up dukes and duchesses from Hanover and how they view today’s politicians is pretty troubling. It represents nothing short of a crisis of democracy. The bile that Julia Gillard has been exposed to since taking office is a clear representation of that: how many Australians, I idly wonder, would if given the opportunity take joy in spitting in the face of their Prime Minister? Or indeed, for that matter, Tony Abbott? A flotsamy question to be sure, but by way of comparison, there is little doubt that the vast majority of the same collections of people would be reduced to quavering child-like excitement in the presence of Her Royal Highness. Of course what she personally has ever tried to do for us or indeed been institutionally capable of doing for us in her role, nobody can really tell us.

It is tempting to whisk together the issues raised here into some prescription for Julia Gillard, but the reality is that this is a much bigger problem. It transcends in its own way “the patriarchy” and the problems confronting women in politics. It is of more fundamental concern than even – clenches teeth – whether Tony Abbott takes up residence in The Lodge in September or not. It is a problem stretching far beyond our land girt by sea, asking serious questions of so-called advanced parliamentary democracies across the globe. Without some dignity in public life, without some appreciation for the role governments can play in shaping the future of the nation and indeed the human race, this will only end in profound public disenchantment in democratic government. This spells doom for leftist social democracy as we know it, unless we start making the case for a new strain of democracy to supercede it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

“Carbon tax” repeal: rhetoric and reality

On 4th April, Tony Abbott spoke to Craig Huth from Max FM in Taree, and was asked about the mechanics of rolling back Labor’s carbon trading plans should the Coalition win government in September. In keeping with party policy on abolishing the scheme, this was the most interesting part of his response:

Some people say, oh but the Labor Party and the Greens will combine to oppose it in the Senate. Well, look Labor wouldn’t be so stupid in my opinion to commit political suicide twice if I may put it that way. If they’ve just lost an election which is a referendum on the carbon tax, they’re hardly going to defy the people twice on this. So, I think the chances of them supporting a carbon tax which has been the cause of their political demise are low, but look, the point I keep making is that when I say there’ll be no carbon tax under the government I lead, I’m fair dinkum Craig and if against all judgment and expectation, the Labor Party is utterly recalcitrant on this, well we’ll take the options available to us under the constitution to resolve the deadlock between the House and the Senate.

Tony Abbott is a man without nuance, and his party’s policy on this issue is wholly emblematic of the man as a politician: lacking nuance to the point of being disingenuous. Whatever happens in the election (which is far from simply “a referendum on the carbon tax”), the current state of the Senate will of course remain as-is until 1st July 2014. The Greens will retain a balance of power, and it is utter nonsense to suggest that they or Labor would simply bend to any incoming Coalition Government’s will, particularly on climate. Memories of the Coalition’s obstructive control of the Senate between 2005 and 2011 are strong in the Labor Party and both Labor and the Greens would relish the idea of returning the favour on such a high profile issue.

Knowing this, Abbott claims that he would immediately seek a double dissolution election if the current Senate declined to yield to a hypothetical incoming Coalition government’s wishes. Really? This would be a high risk strategy, and opens the door for a small-g “green” election fought exclusively on the environment. In this sort of political grudge match, the Greens would stand a good chance of winning a higher proportion of seats in the Senate, as Norman Abjorensen has alluded to. In short, this claim is more bluster than reality, and speaks to Abbott’s inexperience of the practicalities of working with the Senate in a minority government situation. Winning in September – even emphatically – does not necessarily imply that the Coalition would then hold all the cards. In the double dissolution situation the Opposition Leader is supposedly so bloody-minded about triggering, all bets would be off. A famous election victory would amount to little if a hash is made of the next one, which given the gaffe-prone nature of the Coalition’s front bench, would be a serious possibility.

A weighty question mark also remains with respect to how the Senate will be constituted from 1st July 2014, even in the event of a storming Coalition election victory. Antony Green has written a typically exceptional piece on the prospects of the Coalition winning outright control of the Senate if they win in September, in light of the current polling. In short, this seems an unlikely eventuality. The most likely positive scenario for Abbott is that the conservative heartlands of Queensland and Western Australia will offer up additional minor party senators more amenable to working with the Coalition than the Greens and Nick Xenophon. A distinct possibility, but far from a foregone conclusion – and even if that scenario were to materialise, the Coalition would need to wait until July 2014 to set about its demolition work.

In other words, the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” is not so much a plan as an election device. “Tell it like it is” Tony is “telling it like it isn’t” on this issue. The plan itself is impractical and politically unworkable. Arguably, it succeeds in its goal of offering an over-simplistic, easily digestible message to voters: “we’ll get rid it, and if can’t get rid it right away, we’ll upturn the Houses of Parliament to bloody well do it”. This is the sort of pugilistic approach that wins votes and that the near-apocryphal “Lindsay voters” have come to associate with Tony Abbott, but it not the sort of approach that is going to cut the mustard in the corridors of Parliament House should Liberal and National Party arses warm Cabinet benches.

If it comes to the crunch, the smart money suggests that the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” will get tossed out the passenger-side window many hundreds of kilometres before carbon trading does. A hypothetical Abbott Government would much prefer to live on its knees, blaming Labor and the Greens all the way, than stand the risk of dying on the altar of climate change in a double dissolution election.